COLUMBIA — The siblings of 4-year-olds enrolled in state-paid, full-day kindergarten in South Carolina automatically qualify for free child care over the next year under a partnership announced May 12.
The scholarship program is expected to help poor and low-income families easily find free, high-quality child care for all of their children ages 12 and younger, according to First Steps and the state Department of Social Services.
"This is a transformative opportunity for families," said Georgia Mjartan, executive director of First Steps, the agency tasked with helping prepare children for school. "Parents will be able to fully return to work or school, knowing that all of their children are learning and growing in a safe, nurturing environment."
It is available specifically for families who enroll their 4-year-olds in private preschool through First Steps, which oversees the child-care-center side of the state's dual, public-private 4K program. Currently, 2,210 children are enrolled in 211 child care centers across 40 counties.
But Mjartan is counting on legislators following through this year on a long-promised expansion.
More than half of South Carolina's 4-year-olds qualify for state-paid preschool, and the Legislature is expected to extend the option to public schools and private preschools statewide in the upcoming school year. The Senate put $47 million toward the expansion in its budget proposal for 2021-22.
Even without expanding the option to some of the state's largest counties, including Greenville and Charleston, an estimated 1,300 families will benefit from the sibling program, Mjartan said.
Legislators aren't expected to finalize the budget until shortly before the fiscal year starts July 1. The partnering agencies decided not to wait to put the program into gear.
"We're launching it now because now is the time families are trying to go back to work," she said. "A mom who needs to spend two-thirds of her income on child care can’t go back to work."
According to Child Care Aware of America, the average cost for two children at a child care center is more than $18,000 annually. That’s one-fifth of the state’s median income for married couples and 69 percent of the median income for single parents.
In the aptly named 4K + Siblings program, if a child qualifies for state-paid preschool overseen by First Steps, their siblings automatically qualify for federally funded child care vouchers handled by DSS. Many parents qualify for both programs anyway, but DSS' normal voucher program is limited in availability and amount.
Nearly 15,000 children in South Carolina have their child care at least partially paid for with vouchers, according to DSS.
The partnership not only simplifies multiple bureaucratic steps at two agencies into a single application through Free4KSC.org, it guarantees a day care spot for every child under 13 in that family for up to 52 weeks, at no cost to parents.
“We all agree that high-quality early education benefits both children and their families," said DSS Director Michael Leach. "Parents will not be charged a co-pay, and there is no work, school, or training requirement or income limit for families enrolled in the 4K + Siblings program.”
While the child care scholarships start Aug. 16, any child who will turn either 4 or 5 by Sept. 1 — meaning they'll be in preschool or kindergarten in the coming school year — can enroll in First Steps' free, full-day summer programs that start June 1.
"They can get a summer boost," Mjartan said, adding that a soon-to-be kindergartner does not need to be in 4K now to participate.
The summer learning is partially funded through First Steps' share of $7 million in federal COVID-19 aid Gov. Henry McMaster split between the early childhood agency and the state Department of Education to extend in-person learning for at-risk children in state-paid, full-day 4-year-old kindergarten.
First Steps' preschool programs have held in-person classes full time since last June.
McMaster never ordered child care centers to close. Still, at the height of other pandemic shutdowns across the state, 54 percent of all licensed child care centers statewide closed anyway, partly because they couldn't afford to stay open with so few children.
As of May 11, 96 percent, or 2,296, of the state's licensed centers are open, while 100 remain closed, according to DSS.
Mjartan insisted finding open slots won't be a problem. One of the biggest obstacles for centers to reopen has been their own workforce shortage. With the additional funding, child care centers are able to hire, too, she said.
"Our providers are ramping up capacity knowing we have this coming," she said.