The math is easy. With about about $2 billion in new or surplus tax revenues for the state's coming fiscal year, there's more than enough money to do something the state should have long done: Make 4-year-old kindergarten available for all of South Carolina's poor families.
Traditionally, kindergarten begins in public schools for 5 year olds. But starting school earlier makes a difference, according to study after study. For South Carolina to get more at-risk kids in kindergarten, the state will have to steer about $50 million to 4K programs out of the $1 billion in the state's new recurring revenues — money that rolls in without raising taxes.
This is a no-brainer. And, it seems, it's now something on which leaders from both parties actually agree. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, has also called for more 4K money in his proposed budget as the legislature reconvenes.
"We may take it the rest of the way," said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who for years has been steering more money to help all 4 year olds get kindergarten.
GOP state Sen. Greg Hembree, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he was for expanding 4K. "We're not going to make quantum leaps (in education) in the eighth grade, but we can make great strides in the earlier grades," he told reporters last week.
The time for finishing the job is now.
Fifteen years ago as the state was being sued by poor districts for doling out education dollars inequitably, it put together a pilot program to offer 4-year-old kindergarten in those districts. The program had success.
In 2013, Sheheen and other lawmakers worked to expand 4K offerings beyond the 33 pilot districts. By 2016, about 30 more received money for students based on each district's poverty rating. If a district had a poverty index of 75 or higher, it got money.
But that left out poor students who lived in more affluent districts where the poverty index could be far below the 75 rating. Those students, from families just as poor as those in so-called Corridor of Shame districts, couldn't get access to 4K because of their zip codes. It was another inequity. At the time, an estimated 8,250 4-year-olds in S.C. — one in seven of kids this age — were at risk but couldn't qualify.
Currently in 62 of 79 school districts, the state offers free 4K to at-risk children, who are defined as those who are eligible to receive Medicaid.
According to legislative sources, this translates to 4K instruction being given to about 13,000 students in the 62 districts. Another 5,000 qualify to attend free 4K classes, but don't participate in public programs.
In the remaining 17 districts, about 15,000 students still are not served by 4K programs. That would be solved if the state ponied up about $50 million.
Thirty-nine poor school districts filed a lawsuit in 1993 saying they were not receiving fair funding. It took 21 years for the case to wind through the courts and years more to reduce school funding inequities.
There was resistance to the pilot program. The move to expand the program only got funded through a procedural budget move because it wouldn't have passed on a straight up-or-down vote.
But like a soup that stews for a long time to become more palatable, leaders finally seem to have understood, matured, and accepted that 4K education makes a difference — and to continue to keep it from poor kids who live in more affluent districts isn't fair.
In this surplus and election year, let's hope state legislators have the backbone to complete a job that should have been finished long ago.
Andy Brack is publisher of Charleston City Paper.