Nearly all Beaufort County 4-year-olds would get a full day of school under a plan to expand pre-kindergarten.
But to nearly double the number of students served, the Beaufort County School District would need to more than double the cost of its current program -- from about $3.5 million a year to more than $7.7 million.
Many district officials, Board of Education members and faculty members say the initiative is necessary and worth the cost.
"I would tell you that I am fully supportive of that program," school board chairman Bill Evans said. "I am absolutely convinced that early childhood programs are the best use of our money that we can make to increase the opportunities for students."
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But some local legislators and state officials say there are too many questions about the long-term effectiveness of early childhood education to justify more spending now.
"I think we need to be really careful when looking at how we are using the dollars because all families and children don't need public pre-kindergarten," said state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.
Erickson directs her own private early childhood program in Beaufort. She said some have accused her of a conflict of interest, but she said 27 years of experience in the field give her expertise.
"While I am a huge proponent of pre-kindergarten education for students, being an expert in the field I know it is not the magic bullet," Erickson said. "It is a great tool in the toolbox, but we need an arsenal to improve students' success."
Superintendent Jeff Moss said the district's expansion plan -- divided into four phases that would be executed over four school years -- would nearly double the number of children served, from about 850 to more than 1,600.
The expansion is needed to ensure students are prepared when entering grade school, he said.
It also furthers a school board goal that all third-graders perform at grade level, chief instructional services officer Dereck Rhoads said.
"If we want to get all students entering third grade on level, then we need to reach them earlier," Rhoads said. "We know we can't wait until third grade and then catch them up."
However, researchers don't agree on the benefits of pre-kindergarten programs.
Several studies from the National Institute for Early Education Research indicate "strong preschool education programs can meaningfully enhance early learning and development and thereby produce long-term improvements."
Yet the results of the National Head Start Impact Study found no differences in elementary school outcomes between children who attended the early-education Head Start program as 4-year-olds and those who didn't.
"While data shows short-term gains for students enrolled in early childhood education, they perform at the same level with students who did not participate in pre-K classes by third grade," said state Department of Education spokesman Dino Teppara, reflecting the views of the agency. "Taxpayers need evidence of long-term gains before any additional funding is approved."
Nevertheless, President Barack Obama, candidates from both political parties for the S.C. superintendent of education race, Gov. Nikki Haley and her gubernatorial opponent Vincent Sheheen have all touted the importance of early childhood education -- and some even put forward proposals for its expansion.
Expanding the program in Beaufort County would be no small undertaking, Moss acknowledges.
The first phase -- to make all current half-day classes full day -- would cost about $500,000, after a savings of about $350,000 on mid-day transportation costs, he said.
The district also would need an additional $800,000 for the second phase, which would expand the program to include all students on the waiting list for pre-kindergarten, Moss said.
The district currently receives about $563,000 from the state for pre-kindergarten, which is "not significant by any means" to the overall cost, chief operational services officer Phyllis White said.
Moss said the district is emphasizing the first two phases and hopes the board will consider funding them. He said he doesn't believe it would require a tax hike.
"But if we do get to a point where we have to go to the public on this, I'm OK with that," Evans said. "That is because I think most parents understand the importance of early childhood education."
Erickson said offering a mix of public and private programs is cost-effective and gives families more options to fit their needs.
Moss said the district will continue to work with private providers to ensure students receive quality and consistent instruction to help them transition to grade school.
The school board will discuss the pre-kindergarten expansion plan more as it starts working on its budget in the coming months, Evans said.
"I do believe public schools should play a large role in providing pre-kindergarten and early childhood education," Moss said. "That's because of the last word of that: 'education.' "
Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.