- Associated Press - Friday, June 20, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina agency tasked with boosting children’s chances for success will continue with recommended reforms after the Legislature overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto.

The law reauthorizing First Steps for School Readiness through 2016 better defines its mission and requires children to be tested before entering school to identify their needs and track their progress. That part aligns with a provision in the “Read to Succeed” law that Haley enthusiastically signed, as well as a clause in the 2014-15 state budget, which Haley advocated, that requires the testing this fall.

In vetoing the First Steps bill, Haley said the agency has not proved its effectiveness, and the bill’s reforms don’t go far enough. She pointed to last year’s Legislative Audit Council report, which found the percentage of children at risk of not being ready for school in South Carolina remains high, 14 years after First Steps’ founding.

“Put simply, the LAC found that after more than a decade of operation there was no compelling evidence that First Steps was working and that the absence of a statewide definition and assessment of school readiness was a major obstacle to reliably evaluating the program’s effectiveness,” Haley wrote in her veto message last week.

The House voted unanimously Tuesday to override Haley’s veto. The Senate followed Thursday by a vote of 38-2.

Rep. Rita Allison, the bill’s main sponsor, said the measure makes the changes recommended in the audit. Those include defining “school readiness” and establishing pre-school testing.

If the veto had been sustained, First Steps still would have existed, since the budget continued it for a year regardless, but without the reforms.

In 2008, the Legislature eliminated South Carolina’s previous readiness assessment. First Steps director Susan DeVenny said she was thrilled the audit stressed the need for it.

“We’d been asking for this. This gives us a baseline to track how children are coming into school and determine their needs. It allows us to trend improvements and gives teachers who receive these children real, just-in-time information to help these kids immediately,” DeVenny said.

Haley’s veto message sought a larger study of all the state’s pre-kindergarten initiatives.

The new law creates a 12-member study committee to examine First Steps’ structure and how it coordinates with other agencies that serve children. The committee must report its findings to the Legislature by March 2015. The law renews First Steps only until July 1, 2016.

First Steps officially operates as both a state entity and private nonprofit, funded through state and federal money, as well as private donations. Its employees provide assistance to county partners and support state-run programs.

Those include overseeing private providers participating in the state’s full-day kindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds. The Legislature launched that program in public and private pre-school classrooms as a limited pilot in 2006 in response to a court order on school funding. For the second consecutive year, legislators have expanded that program as part of the budget. The 2014-15 budget that takes effect July 1 adds 10 districts, increasing access to 61 of the state’s 81 school districts.

The “Read to Succeed” law that Haley signed last week calls for eventually expanding access to poor 4-year-olds statewide.

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