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S.C. House Approves Mandatory Kindergarten Bill

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The South Carolina House of Representatives has approved amendments to an appropriations bill that would require all 5-year-olds to attend kindergarten unless their parents sign a form exempting them from the programs.

By allowing exemptions, delegates backed off from a plan promoted by Gov. Richard Riley that sought to make South Carolina the only state in the nation that mandates kindergarten for all students.

(Many states require school districts to provide the programs, but none have statutes mandating compulsory attendance, according to a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States.)

Another amendment included in the bill calls for the establishment of voluntary half-day programs for 4-year-olds who are "at risk" in their physical or cognitive development. The bill was expected to be passed last week, a legislative aide said.

If all parents sent their 5-year-olds to kindergarten, the state would have to spend $2 million a year above the current $35-million annual expenditure for kindergarten, according to Terry Peterson, education advisor to Governor Riley.

Mr. Peterson said there are about 2,000 students in the state who do not attend kindergarten. A study completed earlier this year indicated that 39 percent of the children who do not enter kindergarten have to repeat 1st grade, he said.

With the savings on remedial costs, the program would "almost pay for itself in the first year," Mr. Peterson said.

The voluntary program for 4-year-olds is designed to provide additional help for 10,000 students who would not be able to do 1st-grade work even if they attended kindergarten at age 5.

The half-day program would be phased in over a five-year period, according to Mr. Peterson, who said that funding would be increased from $3 million in the first year to $15 million a year by the fifth year.

The two early-childhood initiatives are among 30 elements of the governor's educational-reform plan that lawmakers have been working on over the past five weeks.

The early-childhood bills and the other 28 programs will be considered by the Senate in coming weeks. "We don't know what will happen there," Mr. Peterson said.--sr

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