Shore up First Steps for the good of children

info@islandpacket.comJuly 12, 2013 

Teacher Colleen Kelly reads to 3-year-old students in the Dolphins room of Lowcountry Day preschool on Friday.

JAY KARR — Jay Karr Buy Photo

To the layman, the value of early-childhood education is a no-brainer.

Now it is up to professional educators in South Carolina to prove it.

A recent audit of the state's First Steps to School Readiness program shows that it has some proving to do. The audit calls for tighter administration, better oversight, clearer definitions of its goals and more precise measurements of effectiveness.

First Steps is a state government and private, nonprofit entity focused on early childhood development. The state audit defines it as "a collection of programs that varies from county to county, which can be divided into five categories -- family strengthening, early education, quality child care, health care, and school transitioning." It was created by the legislature in 1999 to work with private and public agencies in every county to increase school readiness in children from birth to age 5. It has an annual budget of $40 million.

An 18-month audit released last month by the Legislative Audit Council recommends 42 changes. It starts at the top, where the board has a slack attendance record. The governor and state superintendent of education are mandated board members, but neither has attended a board meeting in four years. In one stretch of 25 meetings, the board had a quorum in only seven.

That's shameful, and it leads to other problems, like a lack of formal evaluations of staff members, including a director whose salary of $121,540 makes her the highest paid employee in the state Department of Education.

Beyond administrative issues, the audit says First Steps needs to shore up some basic definitions. First Steps works to improve school readiness for at-risk children. But "school readiness" is not defined. And it suggests clearer measures of what qualifies a child as "at risk" -- factors that include teen mothers, poverty and low birth weight. As to program effectiveness, the audit says more testing is needed.

We're convinced that most of the audit suggestions can be quickly implemented, and the agency says half of them are already in the works.

Definitions and measurements should be close at hand. For example, the state for years had a "school readiness" test to measure where children stood when they arrived for first grade. That was cut out about five years ago by the legislature. Educators know what "readiness" means, and they can measure it.

Beaufort County -- to the credit of educators, nonprofits and taxpayers -- has long been a leader in early-childhood education. In the last school year, the school district spent $3.3 million of state, federal and local money to provide full- and half-day pre-kindergarten for 829 at-risk 4-year-olds. That is in addition to kindergarten, and a wide array of other programs that begin with help for families before the baby arrives.

We see First Steps as a wise investment for South Carolina. We see early-childhood education as a no-brainer. And while we're not convinced everything can be measured on a test or proven in black-and-white, we know that the mission of First Steps is too important for it to falter over such basics.

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