Thursday, March 17, 2011

First Steps works for children; will it suffer budget cuts as a result?

"Our ends are consequent upon our beginnings."

A famous person once said this, and it's a fancy way of saying that you cannot hit a home run from the dugout -- which is precisely the absurd challenge set forth for South Carolina's educators and children by lawmakers. Rick Noble, chief executive officer of Richland County First Steps to School Readiness Partnership, says something similar in a column posted at

Thanks to his work with First Steps, Noble is cognizant of the importance of early childhood education. Thanks to his living in South Carolina, he's also cognizant that many state lawmakers give early childhood education the same regard they give mosquitoes.

In the more than 30 years I’ve lived here, we have talked the talk about education being the “highest priority” and the answer to many of our problems, whether it be poverty, job creation, dropout prevention, per capita income, criminal justice — and the list goes on and on. Now is the time to draw a line in the sand and take the opportunity that this crisis presents to walk the walk regarding education, and particularly early childhood education. While other states cut back on funding, this is South Carolina’s chance to catch up and get ahead. We need to say “no more cuts” to the most basic, fundamental government function of investing in human capital (a.k.a. our children), especially early childhood investments such as First Steps and public school 4K.

Noble is familiar with the ruling by Circuit Court Judge Thomas Cooper that "South Carolina’s constitution had been violated by inadequate intervention in early childhood to provide the 'opportunity for each child to receive a minimally adequate education'.”

"Minimally adequate" is South Carolina's way of saying it never intends to provide a great public education for every child, or even a good public education for every child, but rather will take a meager, pale facsimile of education, wring it tight and bone-dry, strip it of any color or funding, leave it to bleach and wither in the sun, then offer it to children as the best that we can afford, and tell them to make do with it -- or, if they don't like it, they can pack a bindle and move to North Carolina or Georgia.

'Cause that's how South Carolina's leadership rolls.

But Noble hopes for better from our legislators.

The state Supreme Court had previously defined “minimal adequacy” as “an opportunity to acquire the ability to read, write, and speak the English language, and knowledge of mathematics and physical science.” Judge Cooper emphasized children from poverty as the class deserving remedy, but did not examine what specific deficits required interventions. He was not prescriptive regarding the age range, mentioning “early childhood,” “pre-kindergarten programs” and “pre-kindergarten through grade 3.”

Recently S.C. First Steps released the results of a three-year evaluation of the impact its programs have in the 46 counties. The evaluation was conducted by High Scope, a well-respected national/international early childhood organization. Among the key findings in the 176-page report (available at /evaluations.htm):

• First Steps efforts are serving those most in need — those at the highest risk for not being ready for school.

• First Steps funds are being spent on well-documented, research-based programs that target and provide effective services to children and families at risk.

• First Steps is providing comprehensive services and programs that support and educate families in wide-ranging ways to increase school readiness.

Clearly, here's a program that seems to work, to meet the need it was designed to meet, and to provide the service needed to the children who need the service. In ANY other state in the land, this would be hailed as a great and effective program, and state funding would rain down upon it like summer showers. But here in South Carolina, positive results by a program designed to help poor children are a red flag: It shows lawmakers precisely where to cut.

Noble's column begs for the opposite, however:

In 2000-2001, S.C. elementary schools held back 5.3 percent of our children in the first, second and third grades statewide, and 4.7 percent in Richland County. That means South Carolina was spending as much as $100 million each year for 8,513 children to go through the same grade for a second time. By 2009-10, retention rates had dropped to 2.5 percent statewide and 2 percent in Richland County — decreases of 53 percent and 57 percent. On paper, this saves $3 million a year in Richland County and $49 million statewide.

So are our children “more ready” for school? The numbers suggest that they indeed are. Even though no single early childhood intervention entity can claim credit, certainly the combined efforts over the past 10 years are having positive results.

That’s a pretty good return on investment.

Each of us must do all we can to encourage our legislators not to abandon the single investment of government funds that pays such rich returns. Let’s tell them to draw a line in the sand and protect our children and improve our prospects in this state, this country and this world.

It seems clear what Gov. Nikki Haley, her leadership team and the General Assembly should do: Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop now. Please don’t stop.

Here's the real and operative question: Does this program earn any profit for a private-sector corporation that contributes to the campaigns of our leaders? The answer to this question will point to way to continued state funding -- or its elimination.

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