S.C. Legislature urged to focus on early childhood education

- Early childhood education advocates called out state lawmakers Wednesday to put aside their differences and reach a bipartisan compromise that invests in pre-kindergarten programs for at-risk children.

The call was made in the lobby of the Statehouse, where the heads of three organizations met to urge lawmakers to implement a statewide policy to measure the progress of children participating in early childhood education programs. More than a dozen organizations, including the United Way and Institute for Child Success, joined the effort dubbed South Carolina's Early Childhood Common Agenda.

"We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this state on early childhood education, and we haven't been able to prove that the way we're doing is effective in every case," said Tim Ervolina, president of the United Way, during the conference. "We're just asking the people upstairs spend the money smartly."

He later added that the effort lays out a guide for lawmakers to use as a potential statewide policy. Evaluating children who participate in the pre-K programs tops the list.

Ervolina said testing children would help educators know what's working. It would also help in holding day care centers and schools providing the programs accountable. Ervolina cautioned, however, children would not be tested in a traditional pass or fail method.

"It's almost misleading to call it testing," Ervolina said. "It's really about what type of intervention this child needs. ... It's not a pre-SAT for 5-year-olds."

The press conference came a day after the South Carolina Education Oversight Committee announced through a written release that it was hard to measure the progress of children who participated in a pilot program that targets at-risk 4-year-olds.

Through the release, committee Executive Director Melanie Barton said the program has expanded to cover nearly 3,000 additional kids, totaling more than 8,000. Despite the program's expansion, Barton said the performance of children involved is not measured until they reach the third grade. She also called for early testing.

"We simply cannot tell legislators or taxpayers whether this program is preparing young people for kindergarten because the data don't exist until third grade," said Barton in the release.

Implementing such a program during the tenure of State Superintendent Mick Zais might prove difficult for advocates, however, because Zais has said there is no research that shows early childhood education benefits children.

"Data shows short-term gains for children enrolling in early childhood education, but they perform at the same level with students who did not participate in pre-K classes by third grade," said state Education Department spokesman Dino Teppara. "Taxpayers should insist on evidence of long-term gains before additional funding is approved."

Advocates say program expansion should be a no-brainer.

"I just think it's a matter of common sense in terms of developing our workforce that you have educated children," said Charles Patrick, a Charleston-based attorney. "We want it be available to everyone so that every child can experience four-year-old kindergarten."

Patrick, who was one of the speakers at Wednesday's press conference, said the Lowcountry has been fortunate in having been chosen by companies such as Boeing. But he questioned where those companies will find their workforce if South Carolina's children have difficulty reading or doing simple mathematical calculations.

"I think this is a program that could foster more jobs," Patrick added. "It might not be immediate, but 16 years down the road; that's when these children go into the workforce."

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, commended the groups for speaking up on Wednesday. Sheheen is Gov. Nikki Haley's likely opponent in the November election and has been advocating statewide pre-K as part of his platform. Haley, who recently introduced her own education reform plan, could not be reached for comment.

"Early childhood education is common sense," Sheheen said. "What we're really trying to do is evaluate their needs to see what we can do to promote opportunity."

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