Nearly half of all SC 4-year-olds now attend state-funded pre-K programs

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South Carolina preschool

In the last 16 years, South Carolina has gone from less than a third of its 4-year-olds attending state-funded preschool programs to nearly half — a 59% increase.

The data on early education comes from a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University called “The State of Preschool 2018.” The report ranks each state on its early education access and funding, and it also takes a look at the quality of preschool programs.

View the National Institute for Early Education report

Steve Barnett, senior co-director and founder at NIEER, said there’s a big difference between high-quality preschool programs and those that amount to babysitting services.

“Preschool is a vast wasteland at too many places,” Barnett said during a webinar news conference on the report.

Only three states met all 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks — Alabama, Michigan, and Rhode Island. South Carolina met seven of the 10 standards.

Ryan Brown, chief communications officer with the South Carolina Department of Education, said the state has focused all of its preschool efforts on 4-year-olds who qualify for Medicaid or those living 185% below the federal poverty line through the Child Early Reading Development and Education Program (CERDEP). Local districts have a limited number of seats for their pre-K programs that target 4-year-olds living in poverty, but most districts will open their programs to 4-year-olds outside that criteria if all of the seats aren’t filled.

The number of 3-year-olds in state-funded programs has dropped to less than 1% in 2018, according to the report, primarily because there is no state-funded program for 3-year-olds. Brown said some local school districts have 3-year-old programs, but they don’t receive state funding for it. Parents who want to send their 3-year-olds to preschool programs often must look at private programs or the federally funded Head Start program.

“We don’t have every single student that meets that [poverty] threshold in a 4-year-old program,” Brown said. “Before we can expand it, we need to be doing a better job of capturing all of the students that are eligible and getting them enrolled.”

Along with the state Department of Education, South Carolina also has a public-private partnership for 4-year-old preschool programs with First Steps, a nonprofit created in 1999 by the state’s General Assembly.

The report from NIEER ranked each state on its access to preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and the resources allocated to early education programs based on state spending and all reported spending. It also highlighted the number of quality standards each state implemented out of a total of 10.

South Carolina ranked 11th for access to programs for 4-year-olds, 29th for access for 3-year-olds, 37th for resources based on state spending, and 41st for resources based on all spending. Of the 10 quality standard benchmarks, South Carolina had seven in practice — early learning standards, curriculum supports, teacher specialized training, staff professional development, maximum class sizes of 20 students, a staff-child ratio of 10:1, and a continuous quality improvement system. The three standards the state didn’t meet were: requiring private preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree; requiring assistant preschool teachers to have the equivalent of a child development associate degree (CDA); and offering vision, hearing, and health screenings for preschool students.

Brown said the state department requires its preschool teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, but it has no control over the private preschools that South Carolina First Steps partners with.

State funding for preschool programs has increased overall in the last 16 years, although it went down from $3,072 per child in 2017 to $2,819 per child in 2018.

“Based on the funding we have, we’re still getting more kids in, and we’re still doing pretty well in the access that is available,” Brown said.

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