Originally created 01/13/02

Taking steps back?



AIKEN - As a pre-kindergarten teacher at Pinecrest Center, Suzanne Dunn is surrounded all day by people with inquisitive minds and boundless energy.

Some of her 4-year-old pupils say they want to grow up to be teachers just like her. Others say they want to be a Silver Bluff High School cheerleader or Animal Planet's Crocodile Hunter.

Pre-kindergarten classes at Pinecrest Center, and at three other schools in Aiken County, are full-day programs. The classes were extended from half a day with funding from First Steps. The program is in jeopardy as the General Assembly begins budget talks.

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, is proposing to eliminate First Steps, designed by Gov. Jim Hodges to prepare children for school.

Mr. Condon's plan, which he calls Early Start, would apply First Steps money and lottery funds to begin a $100 million 4-year-old kindergarten program patterned after Georgia's pre-kindergarten program.

It would pay $3,600 per pupil to the public, private or church school of the parent's choice for 6.5 hours of instruction by two certified teachers with approved curriculum for 180 days a year, he said.

"I really do think most South Carolinians, including some leaders in my own party, aren't aware of just how bad First Steps is in terms of the bureaucracy," Mr. Condon said.

The structure of First Steps, with expenses and salaries of a state board and individual county boards, limits the amount of tax dollars spent on the children because of the overhead, Mr. Condon said.

"If you actually look at what they do, it is so little bang for the buck and an extremely inefficient way of giving out very scarce tax dollars," Mr. Condon said.

He said his proposal is more uniform and would serve more children than First Steps, but Aiken County First Steps Director Peggy Wertz disagrees.

To her, the value of First Steps is that each county in the state was given money to study its individual needs and fund areas where resources were not available, going beyond funding full-day pre-kindergarten classes.

In Aiken County, where 10 programs receive funding, the needs range from extending pre-kindergarten classes to helping teen parents get diplomas to counseling teen parents and grandparents living under the same roof on how to raise a child together.

Sen. Grey Ryberg, R-Aiken, said First Steps needs to be evaluated as to whether there is a return on the investment.

Aiken County's First Steps started programs in June after more than a year of planning.

"It would be a shame to pull the rug out when we just got it in place," Ms. Wertz said. "This isn't the time to consider stopping our programs and not funding them in the future to go with some other initiative that doesn't have three years' development behind it."

Reach Carly Phillips at (803) 648-1395 or carly.phillips@augustachronicle.com.

What's Next: Gov. Jim Hodges' child development program, First Steps, will be re-evaluated as South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon unveils his $100 million program, Early Start.