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S.C. Legislators Take Step To Offer Full-Day Kindergarten to All

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South Carolina legislators have taken a step toward paying for all-day kindergarten.

Ending months of wrangling, the lawmakers late last month added $14.1 million to the state budget that would extend the school day for 5-year-olds from poor families, beginning this fall.

About 16,000 youngsters, one-third of the state's kindergarten students, could benefit from the funding. In a nod to local control, however, the program is optional to districts and parents.

"This is a first step in what we hope will be a three-year phase-in of all-day kindergarten for all students," said Barbara Stock Nielsen, the state schools superintendent. "It made sense to start with the neediest children."

South Carolina schools currently offer kindergarten for half of the school day, though some schools have all-day programs. All-day kindergarten would run five hours each day under the new plan.

The new funds were approved as part of the state's $4.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Though all-day kindergarten is permanently authorized by the legislation, funding to continue or expand the program must be approved next year.

To get the state money, districts must contribute a roughly 30 percent match--the same ratio for half-day kindergarten funding.

'Shooting in the Dark'

The final package reflected the last-minute compromise that Ms. Nielsen proposed to members of a House-Senate budget conference committee after they stalled over the kindergarten issue.

The House earlier this spring defeated a $55 million plan to create all-day kindergarten for all students, while the Senate approved $20 million a year over three years for the program.

The conference committee wrapped up its work on the budget May 30. The House and Senate passed the fiscal package later that day.

Not everyone was happy with the outcome, however.

"We're just shooting in the dark, and it's not a responsible decision," Sen. Michael L. Fair, a Republican, said of all-day kindergarten. "I think it's nothing more than a jobs-creation vehicle for education."

Mr. Fair, who is not a member of the Senate education committee, lamented that more time was not taken to study the issue.

The legislation has public support largely because it will provide day care for working families, he added.

Groups representing teachers and administrators praised the accord, which Gov. David M. Beasley, a Republican, is expected to sign.

"We have to crawl before we can walk, and that's what we're doing now," said Kathy Cauthen, the director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association.

She predicted that the program would be so successful after a year that even critics would find it impossible not to expand it to all students.

"We're delighted that it did pass," said Evelyn Berry, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association. "Intervention at those early years is the way to get the best payoff."

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