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Pre-kindergarteners rotate between learning stations at Meeting Street Academy @ Brentwood in North Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

We’ve been nibbling around the edges of education reform in South Carolina, but finally we’re looking at a game-changer.

Gov. Henry McMaster has made a powerful case for the past year that our state’s economic success is tied directly to our ability to make sure all children get a good education, and now he tells our Seanna Adcox that providing 4-year-old kindergarten and early childhood education for poor children is a cornerstone of his state budget proposal to be unveiled next week.

His plan could nearly double the number of poor children enrolled in full-day 4K by expanding it to cover all children living in poverty, not just those in the highest-poverty school districts. He also wants to expand parenting initiatives for children ages birth to 3 in the state’s poorest counties.

As Mr. McMaster put it: “Every year we delay is another year of young people who are not going to be able to make it to the first rung of that educational ladder. If they’re not ready when they go to 5K, they’re never going to catch up.”

Although the money is important, what makes the governor’s plan a game-changer is the acknowledgment at the highest levels state government that early childhood education is the crucial way forward.

Brain researchers have known for decades that what happens in the first four or five years of life plays a critical role in a child’s success. With parents who read to them and play with them, children’s brains form the neural pathways that make learning easier for the rest of their lives. Without that stimulation — with hours in front of the TV, or any other screen, instead of personal interaction and encouragement, and education — their brains don’t develop as well, and learning is difficult.

The best way to make South Carolina prosper — to make it a place our children and grandchildren want to spend their lives, where businesses want to locate and expand and people from other places want to visit and make their own homes — is to make sure that children grow up to be productive citizens.

Poor children are far less likely than middle-class children to receive the brain stimulation they need at home in those formative early years because so many have parents who don’t have the skills or time or resources to provide them with the stimulus their brains need to develop on schedule.

High-quality early childhood development programs can make up for that, increasing children’s brain capacity and helping them start kindergarten caught up with their better-off peers.

Most policymakers in South Carolina have acknowledged all this for years, and more than a decade ago the Legislature even started providing 4-year-old kindergarten to children in the state’s poorest counties, with promises to expand it statewide. But it takes years to see the payoff from early education, and lawmakers quickly got distracted by other shiny objects, so we still don’t provide 4K to half the state’s poor children.

That’s the best evidence there is that our state has not been serious about educating all children. And that’s why it’s so important to have a governor leading on this issue.

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Of course, simply spending more money won’t do much good if it isn’t spent well. But we know how to spend well in this area: by providing children with actual teachers who put together smart lesson plans to stimulate the growing brain, rather than simply providing glorified baby sitters.

The result is children who start kindergarten ready to learn. Those children are less likely to have to repeat a grade, so they’re less likely to drop out of high school, so they’re less likely to become criminals or deadbeats. They’re more likely to live fulfilling lives as productive, taxpaying citizens who don’t perpetuate the cycle of poverty and dependency but instead help make our state a place where more businesses want to invest and more of us are happy living out our lives.

Speaker Jay Lucas had already identified early childhood education as part of the House’s next wave of education initiatives, and the Senate’s leaders have long supported such efforts.

But as we’ve seen, support doesn’t always equal action. Mr. McMaster and lawmakers need to ensure that it does this time.