Starting students off right

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Early, adult education are top priorities for state legislators

By Chris Sardelli

The importance of education during a child’s formative years, and the funding to get the job done, was a hot topic for a panel of state legislators last week. 

The panel discussion, part of the S.C. Press Association’s annual Legislative Workshop for the Media, was held in Columbia on Jan. 9. One of the topics discussed that was the current push by some legislators for more 4K education programs within the state, as well as adult education and workforce training. 

During the meeting, held at the Solomon Blatt building on Statehouse grounds, more than 20 South Carolina legislators and officials answered a variety of education-related questions from a packed house of media. 

Their comments followed less than a day after S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley announced her K-12 Education Reform Initiative, which includes changes in the state’s education funding formula for school districts, with a focus on disadvantaged students, reading coaches and technology improvements. 

Though the majority of funding called for in Haley’s plan (about $97 million) would be directed for disadvantaged students in the state’s poorest communities, several of the legislators at the workshop instead felt funding for further 4K programs should be one of South Carolina’s top priority. Such programs, including the S.C First Steps initiative, focus on full-day kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds. 

State Sen. Joel Lourie, (D-22), who represents Kershaw and Richland counties, told the crowd he believes 4K programs are the best strategy for educating the state’s children.

Paraphrasing famed New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who served during the 1930s and 40s, Lourie said the need for early education should not be politicized. 

“He said there was no Republican or Democrat way to take out the trash. You just take out the trash,” Lourie said. “Undeniable research is there for spending on 4K and early-childhood preparedness. We know (4K) works. We know how much of a child’s future depends on that child’s development in their first five to six years.”

Lourie urged coming together with other legislators to make 4K programs a priority. 

“We need to make sure every child has access to 4-year-old (kindergarten). The biggest issue is this,” he said. 

Nodding in agreement was State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter (D-Orangeburg), who said a child’s most formative years are at the very beginning of their life.

“Those are the most important to a child’s ability to learn, so 4K is good,” Cobb-Hunter said. 

She also championed the idea of making sure all students – regardless of where they live – have the same opportunities for proper education. 

“When we talk about education with limited resources, we need to focus on the issue of a child not being penalized by geography in the kind of education a child receives. We need to focus on learning as a lifetime type of action,” she said. 

Touching upon the issue of universal 4K education, State Rep. Rita Allison (R-Spartanburg), said it would be desirable, but the state doesn’t have the appropriate foundation to handle such a program. 

“We don’t have the facilities at this time to have a universal 4K. There would have to be a lot of buildings brought in,” Allison said. “With the $26 million that was allocated, and $22 million recurring this year, that will allow for public and private to continue to expand.”

Prior to the discussion, State Budget Director Les Boles talked about the biggest drivers of South Carolina’s projected fiscal year 2014-15 budget. This includes the base $2,101 cost per students in grades K through 12, as defined by the Education Finance Act.

“To maintain that $2,101 per student, we need $34.8 million. That’s just to stay where we are today,” Boles said. 

Other costs, he cited, included $35.9 million for instructional materials and $11.9 million to keep school buses running. In total, the projected K-12 funding for the upcoming year is $82.7 million. 

Ready for work

Early-education programs were not the only education initiatives on the legislators’ minds, with several panelists also discussing how to ready students to join the working world. 

State Rep. Brian White (R-Anderson), said making sure students have the appropriate skills for future careers is directly tied to the success of the 

state’s economic development prospects. 

“We can’t go out and recruit for jobs or have a skilled workforce if they are not educated,” White said. “We need to put education at the forefront.”

Finding ways to ready students for these jobs is paramount, said State Rep. Murrell Smith, (R-Sumter).

“We need to spend efficiently to pilot programs and have a trained workforce through tech schools. This will feed students into jobs,” Smith said. 

Whether it’s 4K or workforce training, Cobb-Hunter gave her final word on how the General Assemby should be setting its education priorities. 

“I’m tired of us yielding to the latest sexy education issue of the day. We need to focus on the fundamentals, on what really works, not just what sounds good,” she said. “Rhetoric has no place in education.”


Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416