Projected Taxpayer Tab for Expanded 4K Program Much Larger Than Original Estimate

May 6, 2013

Investigative Reports

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4KAn advancing S.C. Senate proposal aimed at expanding the state’s full-day, 4-year-old kindergarten program could cost tens of millions more than what has been publicly disclosed, according to The Nerve’s review of a revised state estimate.

And there’s no evidence that the program is the “biggest bang for your buck,” says a spokesman for state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais.

The Senate Education K-12 Subcommittee last week approved a bill (S. 134), sponsored by Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, that would make South Carolina’s Child Development Education Pilot Program (CDEPP) available to all “at-risk” 4-year-olds who qualify for Medicaid or live in households with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

The full-day 4K program operates in 36 higher-poverty school districts, serving about 5,200 students as of fiscal 2011 – mainly in public schools, according to a November report by S.C. First Steps to School Readiness. The S.C.General Assembly has appropriated about $19.8 million to the program, funded with 1 cent of the 6-cent state sales tax; participating school districts cover another $10 million of the costs, the report said.

The 36 school districts were plaintiffs in a school-funding lawsuit that resulted in a 1999 ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court that said the state must offer K-12 students a “minimally adequate” education. The high court in 2008 and again last year heard an appeal from a follow-up 2005 lower-court decision, though the justices have issued no new ruling and are under no deadline to do so.

In addition to funding for the full-day, 4K program, another $15.8 million is allocated by the Legislature for half-day, 4K programs statewide, which served about 19,000 students with “predicted significant readiness deficiencies” in fiscal 2011, according to the First Steps report.

Various media outlets have reported that expanding the full-day program would cost at an estimated $87 million. But that’s the low end of an initial fiscal-impact projection by the Office of State Budget (OSB), which recently revised its original cost estimates upward.

The initial report said it would cost $108.5 million to nearly $149 million in recurring funds, based on a participation rate of at least 78 percent, plus another $13.4 million to $18 million in non-recurring funds, to implement the 4K program for an estimated eligible 41,592 children statewide.

Excluding approximately 6,500 children served by the federal Head Start program, the cost projection would drop to a range of $86.5 million to about $120.7 million in recurring funds.

The original OSB estimate, however, didn’t account for classroom construction costs. In its revised projection, the office estimated, based on figures from the state Education Department, that new construction would cost $120,000 to $200,000 per classroom, and $106,000 to $175,000 if portable classrooms were used.

The latest projection didn’t provide any estimated total construction costs for expanding the full-day program. But those numbers could be staggering based on the cost formulas used in the projection.

For example, given an additional 20,000 children in the program and an average of 20 students per classroom, estimated new construction costs statewide would range from $120 million to $200 million, while the projected collective cost of using portable classrooms as an alternative would range from $106 million to $175 million, The Nerve’s review found.

In a related matter, the Senate Finance Committee on Friday approved phasing in the program, allocating $26 million toward the expansion as part of its version of the fiscal 2014 state budget. That amount would allow about 8,200 more children statewide to enroll in the full-day program, according to a story in The State newspaper.

But given OSB assumptions, the proposed $26 million would fall far short of housing the additional children. Based on the OSB cost formulas and an average of 20 students per classroom, an additional 8,200 children would cost an estimated $49.2 million to $82 million in new classroom construction, and $43.4 million to $71.7 million if portable classrooms were used.

During Wednesday’s Senate Education K-12 Subcommittee meeting, Sheheen, who is a member of the full Education Committee, touted his bill as a way to significantly improve learning and the quality of the state’s workforce.

“We don’t take dramatic steps forward in public education very often,” he said. “In South Carolina, this is an opportunity to do that.”

Citing studies, Sheheen said participants in 4K programs are less likely when they grow older to smoke or use drugs, and that teenage girls are less likely to become pregnant.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington and a subcommittee member, expressed solid support of the bill.

“This is one of the most critical things we can do as it relates to educating children,” he said. “I happen to be the product of an early education system in my little town. I cannot tell you what effect it had upon me.”

Contacted last week by The Nerve, state Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley said Zais does not support the bill.

“The research is mixed at best on the results of a four-year-old program,” Ragley said in an email response. “His (Zais’) question is given the dollars available, what’s the greatest return on student learning? Today we haven’t seen the study that says that 4K is the biggest bang for your buck.”

Ragley cited an analysis by the state Education Oversight Committee that found that students in the 4K program demonstrated lower achievement levels overall than students who did not participate. The study also noted, however, that when comparing students in both groups “who were most similar in their educational circumstances” (students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches), the students in the 4K program performed better.

Ragley also cited a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), which ranked South Carolina 10th in the nation in access to early childhood education.

In a review last year of state spending on the full-day, 4K program, The Nerve found that more than $93 million had been appropriated for the program since fiscal 2007, yet 11 of the 36 participating school districts received overall failing grades at the elementary level on recent federal report cards, raising questions about the program’s effectiveness.

Sheheen’s bill passed last week with a favorable report from the subcommittee, with only Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, opposing.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org. Follow The Nerve on Facebook or on Twitter @thenervesc.