South Carolina State of the State (copy)

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster delivers the State of the State address at the South Carolina Statehouse on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Columbia. File/Sean Rayford/AP

COLUMBIA — Gov. Henry McMaster wants to expand state-funded, full-day pre-kindergarten for poor children to every South Carolina school district, putting thousands more 4-year-olds on a path to success.

His budget proposal, to be released Jan. 13, includes $53 million to broaden access in the 17 school districts not currently eligible for the state aid and increase the per-student funding. Some districts provide full-day 4K for at-risk students out of local taxes.

In what he calls a "cornerstone" of his 2020 agenda, McMaster will use this month's State of the State address to ask legislators to finally take statewide a program created in 2006 in response to a court order to improve early childhood education for impoverished students.

For eight years, funding was limited to the then-40 poor, rural districts that sued the state in 1993. Completing the expansion would fulfill a promise legislators put in state law six years ago but never funded.

"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," McMaster told The Post and Courier. "If they’re not ready when they go to 5K, they’re never going to catch up."

More than half of South Carolina's 3- and 4-year-olds are not in a preschool program, ranking behind Florida and Mississippi, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2019 Kids Count report. 

If South Carolina doesn't step up now, it will fall behind economically because businesses will go to other states that have better prepared their workforce, McMaster said.

The Post and Courier's five-day "Minimally Adequate" series, that ran in November 2018, detailed how the state fails to prepare thousands of students for either college or the work world.    

McMaster's budget also puts $4 million into parenting initiatives for children ages birth to 3 in the state's poorest counties. 

"You have to start at the beginning, and this is the beginning," McMaster said, noting there are nearly 70,000 unfilled jobs in South Carolina looking for qualified workers. "Things have come into focus, and now is the time." 

Legislative leaders of both parties support the idea, indicating it will likely make it into next year's budget. It helps that the push comes in a year state economic experts predict legislators will have an additional $1.8 billion to spend. 

"I’m thrilled," said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Camden Democrat who's been pushing for a full expansion for a decade. 

"There’s a myth that governors don’t have power in South Carolina. But having a governor support the expansion of 4K makes it much, much more likely it will occur," said Sheheen, who twice ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Nikki Haley on a platform that included expanding 4K. "It either takes a tremendous, gradual effort in the General Assembly — and that’s what we’ve done so far — or it takes having a governor on board. Now we have a bipartisan coalition and a legislative and executive coalition."

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said increasing "access to this important building block of a child's education" was already on his agenda for 2020, following a series of meetings with teachers around the state. He's drafted legislation to make the expansion permanent law, rather than a one-year fix in the budget subject to yearly approvals.  

"We heard time and again how critical early childhood education is to a student’s academic success," Lucas said.

Even Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, who's usually mum on spending proposals ahead of his committee's work, said "the governor is clearly on the right track looking to expand educational access for our citizens, especially our youngest." He did add that the idea must be balanced against other needs. 

The expansion could nearly double both the state's spending and children served. 

That's because districts that would benefit include some of the state's biggest, such as Greenville, Charleston and Beaufort counties and Richland 2, which is suburban Columbia. Less than 70 percent of their total student population lives in poverty — the threshold legislators set for state support when they last expanded eligibility in 2014 to 64 districts.

Those currently ineligible get money for a half-day 4K program instead — which the state has funded since 1984, though the aid no longer covers actual costs, even for the abbreviated time, which can be as few as 2½ hours daily. 

Exactly how many additional children would be served by the full-day expansion is unknown. The governor's office estimates there are 13,000 poor 4-year-olds in the 17 districts who aren't attending a federally funded Head Start preschool.

But Charleston County, for example, provides full-day 4K to about 2,000 students using local property taxes. Dorchester 2 covers a full-day program at two of its 15 elementary schools with the highest concentration of at-risk students. Local officials declined to comment on the proposal at such an early stage.

"But we firmly believe" in the advantages of early childhood education, "and we know we’re missing some of those kids," said Peggy Franklin, Dorchester 2's assistant director of elementary schools.

Unknowns include whether there's space to accommodate additional children.

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That's where private schools could fill a gap. Since the program's inception, private day cares and schools that meet certain qualifications have been allowed to participate, though the vast majority of the roughly 12,000 4-year-olds in state-paid, full-day classes attend public schools. 

Attendance has actually been declining in recent years. Even three of the 64 school districts currently eligible for full-day funding have opted not to participate.

To reverse that trend and encourage participation, McMaster proposes eliminating separate licensing requirements through the Department of Social Services for both public and private schools with full-day 4K programs, viewed as a burdensome layer of bureaucracy.

And he proposes increasing the per-child funding by $200 to $4,800. Program costs can still run several thousand dollars per child over that, depending on a host of factors such as classroom ratios, length of the day and school year, and transportation, according to a Rand analysis of participants commissioned by the Education Oversight Committee. 

But McMaster said he's confident more private schools will participate in the expansion.

The Catholic Diocese of Charleston, which operates 28 elementary schools, anticipates opening space in each to serve more children in its schools statewide. Currently, just two Catholic schools — one in Columbia and the other in North Augusta — participate in the state program, serving about 40 4-year-olds total, said spokeswoman Maria Aselage. 

For paying parents of nearly 500 4-year-olds in Catholic schools across the state, tuition ranges from $3,000 to $9,000, with a median charge of $5,300, she said.

McMaster plans to use his bully pulpit to promote an expansion of what's available for poor students, since part of the participation problem is that parents don't know the option exists.    

"The last thing we want is for people to be looking for a provider and can’t find one," he said. "That’s as bad as having jobs looking for people."   

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.