COLUMBIA,- The Senate passed a bill Wednesday aimed at boosting students' chances of success through an expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten and early intervention in reading.
Senators voted 36-6 on a compromise of the "Read to Succeed" bill, which united the agendas of the chambers' Republican and Democratic caucuses. After its passage, Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler gave a tearful speech at the podium.
"We're not doing it for us. We're doing it for the children in this state," said Peeler, R-Gaffney. "To the thousands of people in South Carolina who don't read too good, this is for you!"
The effort was personal, he said, though he declined to be specific.
The compromise combined Democrats' push to make 4-year-old kindergarten available to all at-risk students and Peeler's bill aimed at ensuring students can read by fourth grade. His called for a coordinated focus that includes reading coaches, summer reading camps and teacher training.
Beginning with the 2017-18 school year, students still struggling to read by the end of third grade would be held back for intensive help.
Democrats had refused to let the retention bill advance without the expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten, which they deemed essential to putting children on a path to success.
"This is a very, very proud day in this Senate," said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia. "We're doing something right for future generations in South Carolina."
The bill would not immediately expand full-day 4-year-old kindergarten statewide.
All of the bill's provisions would be subject to funding by the Legislature. Last year, the Legislature put $26 million toward extending state-paid, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten to 17 additional school districts, increasing access to needy children in 53 districts statewide. Democrats have pushed for an expansion ever since legislators created a limited pilot in 2006 in response to a court order over education funding.
Setzler said the bill means the state will eventually further expand the program to cover the remaining 24,000 at-risk 4-year-olds.
"The earlier you invest in a child's education, the better equipped that child is for success and the more bang for the buck the taxpayers get," said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden.
How much the Legislature may spend to further expand access next school year is unclear. The Senate Finance Committee began its 2014-15 budget debate Tuesday.
As for the reading piece, the bulk of that funding is already in the House's budget plan, which adopted Gov. Nikki Haley's education recommendations. That includes $29 million for reading coaches in elementary schools, $6 million for summer reading camps and $2.5 million for testing the language skills of 4- and 5-year-olds to identify problems as they enter school.
The bill also requires public colleges to add courses in literacy instruction and require them for education majors. All current elementary school teachers would have to take graduate courses to earn a literacy credential. The courses could fulfill continuing-education requirements for recertification, so they wouldn't add to teachers' workload.