COLUMBIA (AP) - Gov. Henry McMaster wants to expand full-day pre-kindergarten for low-income 4-year-olds to every school district across South Carolina.
The program was created in 2006 in response to a lawsuit by poorer, more rural school districts and didn't cover all the districts in the state.
McMaster's $53 million proposal would expand the 4K program to the remaining 17 districts. Several are among South Carolina's largest districts including Beaufort, Charleston, Greenville and Richland District 2, according to The Post and Courier of Charleston.
McMaster told the newspaper the expansion of the 4K program is critical to his efforts to improve education to keep economic development humming in South Carolina.
"Every year we delay is another year of young people who are not going to be able to make it to the first rung of that educational ladder," McMaster told The Post and Courier. "If they're not ready when they go to 5K, they're never going to catch up."
Several senators and House members praised the Republican governor's proposal. Democratic Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden has been pushing for universal pre-kindergarten for years and said it can only improve education across all grades.
Republican Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree said early investment in education often provides the best results.
"We've got to tackle this upstream," said Hembree, from Horry County. "We're not going to make quantum leaps in the eighth grade."
The program provides pre-kindergarten classes to 4-year-olds who qualify for Medicaid because their annual family income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that is $47,638 a year.
The full-day pre-K program was created in 2006 and has been slowly expanded. By 2014, the program covered 64 districts, all of which have at least 70% of their total student population in poverty.
The other districts were available for a half-day program. The extra money McMaster wants to set aside would create a full-day program across the state.
The 4K program is the second major education funding initiative announced by McMaster before he releases his budget proposal next week.
Last month, the governor said he wants lawmakers to put $211 million into the spending plan to give all the state's nearly 53,000 teachers a $3,000 raise.
McMaster's plan is his own wish list but gives lawmakers an idea of his priorities.
And the Legislature has plenty of extra money to spend. Economists estimate the state will have $1.8 billion in additional revenue for the budget year starting in July, with about $800 million of that in money that rapidly growing South Carolina can expect each year through tax collections and fees.
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