Millions Spent on 4-Year-Old Kindergarten Programs in Districts with Failing Grades

September 18, 2012

Investigative Reports

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SchoolkidsMore than $93 million in state tax dollars has been appropriated since fiscal 2007 for full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten programs in 36 poor school districts in South Carolina, yet 11 of the districts received overall failing grades at the elementary level on recently released federal report cards, a review by The Nerve has found.

The findings raise questions about the effectiveness of the Child Development Education Pilot Program (CDEPP) as the S.C. Supreme Court this morning is set to again consider a landmark school-funding case that resulted in the creation of the program.

A superintendent in one of the 36 school districts told The Nerve last week that he was not aware of any in-depth studies on the effectiveness of the program in South Carolina. There were more than 4,700 students enrolled statewide in the voluntary program last school year, records show.

“Where’s any research that shows us that X amount of money will solve this problem and will give us this result?” said Dillon 3 Superintendent John Kirby.

In fiscal 2011, the General Assembly transferred funding for the evaluation of CDEPP from the state Education Oversight Committee to South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness, which was required to use that money to “serve students, not evaluate the program,”  said S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jay Ragley.

“My understanding is there was no evaluation by the EOC of CDEPP beginning in FY 10-11,” Ragley said in a written response last week to The Nerve.

In an October 2010 report, the EOC said a sample of 276 CDEPP students in the 2009-10 school year showed they had made “modest and meaningful progress in language, achievement, and social and behavioral development.”

“These gains were maintained as children moved from pre-kindergarten to kindergarten,” according to a summary of the report. “The positive findings have been consistent across years giving us greater confidence in the positive impact of the CDEPP for preparing children for kindergarten.”

But it’s unknown whether the program has resulted in any substantial improvement in the educational performance of 4-year-old CDEPP students as they move through higher elementary grades. CDEPP students in 2006 would have been 9 years old and in the 4th grade last school year, assuming normal grade-completion rates.

The 11 school districts that received an overall “F” in their elementary-grade performance on federal report cards released last month by state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais were appropriated a total of $21.7 million from  the 2006-2007 school year through last school year, according to Education Department records.

That amount represents nearly a quarter of the approximately $93.7 million in CDEPP funds allotted to the 36 districts during that period, The Nerve’s review found. The funding derives from 1 cent of the six-cent state sales tax earmarked for certain K-12 education programs.

The state also provides CDEPP funding to private pre-kindergarten programs administered by the state First Steps office.

In addition, since the 1980s, the state has provided funding for half-day 4-year-old kindergarten programs in public districts statewide; last fiscal year nearly 30,000 children participated in those programs. From fiscal 2007 through last fiscal year, more than $109 million has been allocated to those programs, Education Department records show.

For this fiscal year, which started July 1, the public and private CDEPP programs were appropriated a total of about $31.7 million, while another $15.5 million was allocated to the half-day programs in public districts.

‘Systemic Poverty’

The 11 CDEPP school districts last school year that flunked the elementary section of the federal report cards were Allendale, Bamberg 2, Barnwell 19, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper, Lee, Marion 1, Marlboro, Orangeburg 4 and Williamsburg, according to Education Department records.

Six districts, including Superintendent Kirby’s Dillon 3 district, received a “C” grade on the elementary section; 13 districts garnered “B’s”; and four – Barnwell 29, Chesterfield, Florence 1 and McCormick – earned an “A” grade, records show.

Two districts – Dillon 1 and Dillon 2 – earlier merged and were not included in the grading, which the Education Department was allowed to do for the first time this year after receiving a waiver from the federal government under the No Child Left Behind law.

Kirby, whose district was a plaintiff in the school-funding suit, questioned how much thought was initially put into creating the full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten program, which he noted has “some strings attached,” giving school districts less flexibility in spending that money.

He added the state has gradually cut the amount of CDEPP funds his district receives; Education Department records show the district’s annual appropriation dropped from $279,454 in fiscal 2009 to $256,894 last fiscal year.

Kirby said he believes CDEPP funding is a “good start” but no quick fix to improving the quality of education in poor districts such as his. A total of $1.5 million in CDEPP funds was allocated to the Dillon 3 district from fiscal 2007 through fiscal 2012, records show.

“When you’re dealing with systemic poverty that has been there for generations, you can’t fix it in one or two years of additional funding,” he said.

Contacted last week, Jasper County Schools Superintendent Vashti Washington told The Nerve she believes that CDEPP funds have been transferred from her district and other relatively small, poor districts to larger, more wealthier districts that contend they have eligible CDEPP students.

To participate in CDEPP, children must be eligible for federal free- or reduced-price lunches, or Medicaid, according to the state Education Oversight Committee.

“They took our money so they could redistribute it,” Washington said. “I feel that’s not fair to us.”

Education Department records show that CDEPP funding for Washington’s district dropped to nearly $690,000 last fiscal year from slightly more than $1 million the previous fiscal year, a decrease of more than $335,000, or about 33 percent.

From fiscal 2007 through last fiscal year, the Jasper County district received more than $4.5 million in CDEPP funds, records show.

Asked about the overall failing performance in elementary grades in her district as indicated by the report cards released last month by the state Education Department, Washington said 4-year-old CDEPP  students who started in school when she became superintendent have” shown improvement.”

“That’s my benchmark,” she said.

Never-Ending Case

The CDEPP program was created by the Legislature in 2006 as a result of a 2005 ruling by a circuit judge in the landmark school-funding case known as Abbeville County School District et al v. the state of South Carolina et al.

In his 2005 ruling, Judge Thomas W. Cooper said the state had not done enough to overcome the effects of poverty in the plaintiff districts, especially with regard to early childhood-intervention programs.

Twenty-nine poor school districts sued the state in 1993 contending that the way schools were funded was unconstitutional. In 1999, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state owed students a “minimally adequate” education and sent the case back to Cooper, who initially had dismissed the lawsuit, to determine if that standard was being met.

Cooper issued a 162-page ruling in December 2005 after a 102-day trial that stretched over two years. Both sides contended the decision fell short and appealed to the Supreme Court, which held another round of hearings in 2008 but failed to issue a ruling afterward.

The five-member high court was scheduled this morning to rehear the case yet again, making it the longest-running state civil case in recent years and one of the longest of its kind in recent U.S. history, legal observers say. The justices are under no legal deadline to issue a ruling.

The Nerve in 2010 reported that the case is likely the most expensive school-funding case for South Carolina taxpayers, costing at least $14.7 million, though more than half of that amount was the value of donated legal services by the state’s large private law firm in representing the plaintiff school districts.

Over the years, the number of plaintiff districts in the case shrunk to eight: Allendale; Dillon 2, though it no longer exists with consolidation; Florence 4;  Hampton 2;  Jasper; Lee;  Marion 7, though it no longer exists with consolidation; and Orangeburg 3.

Of the remaining plaintiffs, five – Allendale, Florence 4, Hampton 2, Jasper and Lee – received a total of more than $9.7 million in CDEPP funds from fiscal 2007 through last fiscal year, though their elementary schools collectively received an “F” on federal report cards released last month.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.