COLUMBIA - Democratic gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen says he wants to get South Carolina's education back to its basics by focusing on the expansion of 4-year-old kindergarten and empowering teachers.

Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, said Monday in a phone interview he's kicking off the "Back to Basics" initiative in an effort to place a priority on things that can be done on a practical level to improve South Carolina's education system. Sheheen is challenging Gov. Nikki Haley this fall, along with independent candidate Tom Ervin and Libertarian candidate Steve French.

"I'm a big believer that you don't need and you shouldn't have a bunch of gimmicks to improve education," Sheheen said. "You really need to focus on getting kids early and empowering teachers."

Sheheen's top priorities require money for expanding 4-year-old kindergarten and increasing teacher pay. To find the cash to cover that, Sheheen said the state should conduct efficiency audits to determine where it can cut costs.

"I hear a lot of excuses from politicians and people on boards and commissions," Sheheen said. "If we find reasons not to do it, we won't expand 4-year-old kindergarten.If we make teacher pay a priority, we can increase it."

Other initiatives include smaller class sizes and having a "one South Carolina-approach" to funding, so that schools in rural areas are funded more equitably, in an effort to attract high-quality teachers to rural districts.

Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, said through email that Sheheen's proposals are "sound and ultimately achievable." Hampton added the association was gratified to have a candidate who "gets it" when it comes to public schools, "after four years of neglect in funding education on the part of our current, veto-prone governor."

"The South Carolina Education Association supports Sen. Sheheen's holistic approach to funding education equitably among all school districts, particularly those in rural areas," Hampton said. "The SCEA has asserted time and again that the General Assembly must fully fund education according to the Education Finance Act of 1977, something legislators have failed to do an estimated 66 percent of the time for more than three decades."

In response to Sheheen's initiative, Haley's campaign spokeswoman Chaney Adams touted in an email Haley's introduction and the Legislature's passage of an education reform package that included increased funding for reading coaches, improved Internet capabilities at schools and an increase in funding for students in poverty.

"The Haley education reforms will lift up students in all parts of our state, especially in traditionally overlooked rural and poor areas, with a critical focus on reading skills and technology," Adams said. "Governor Haley has proven that she makes a difference for students, parents, and teachers, and we welcome Senator Sheheen's support."

Colin Ross, campaign manager for French, said he's unclear how Sheheen believes his initiatives will work, when politicians have admitted they have no idea what works in education and that their only idea is to throw money at the problem. French advocates for school choice.

"You really need to reform our education instead of spending a lot of extra money," Ross said. "It's just throwing money at a bad problem."

Meanwhile, Ervin's education plan will be released within the next two weeks, said his spokesman Christian Hertenstein through email.

"With our students ranked 43rd in education (according to the 2014 KidsCount survey), one would hope that a professional politician like Sen. Sheheen, who has been in Columbia for the last four years and a member of the Senate's education committee, would not wait until an election to offer solutions," Hertenstein said. "Like typical politicians, Sen. Sheheen and Gov. Haley will offer plans during the election but fail to offer the leadership required to implement them."

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.