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Audit Of SC First Steps Program To Help Children

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A new audit of the South Carolina First Steps to School Readiness program says it reported "questionable statistics" to the public about how much it helps children get prepared for school.

The Legislative Audit Council report says First Steps stated that "the implementation of early childhood development and education programs has coincided with a 48% decrease in the percentage of students who repeat first grade and is saving the state more than $21 million a year." The audit says First Steps did not compare the retention rate of students who took part in early childhood programs versus those who did not.

First Steps executive director Susan DeVenny says the program did not use questionable statistics, and there's a good reason it reported retention rate. "There's not a school readiness assessment test offered in South Carolina," she says. "There was one that was deleted by the General Assembly in 2001, and then a second one deleted in 2008, and so we've had no other objective data to use as an indicator around whether things are getting better or worse for children."

She says the First Steps board decided to look at retention rates as a way to measure whether children are doing better, but is not suggesting that First Steps alone is responsible for the fact that fewer children are repeating the first grade.

The audit does say that state law does not define "school readiness" and does not give the state Department of Education the authority to set up a uniform school readiness test. Rep. Phil Owens, R-Easley, chairman of the House Education and Public Works Committee, says he thinks lawmakers should re-establish a school readiness test as one measure of whether First Steps is helping.

Another thing the audit found is that trustees of the First Steps board have not adequately attended meetings, and that those members who did attend have made decisions without a quorum present.

DeVenny says part of the problem is that there are five vacancies on the board, and six members of the board are elected officials who are very busy, including the governor and state education superintendent.

"We have always had a challenge with quorum," she says. "We have never, in any instance, though, taken action without the full executive committee there. So by bylaws we're allowed to take actions, regardless of whether there's a full quorum there."

State lawmakers must now decide whether to reauthorize the First Steps program. They were waiting for this audit to make their decision. Senate Education Committee chairman Sen. John Courson, R-Columbia, says, "I don't see anything in the report that would preclude First Steps from being re-authorized. I think we need it. I think the program has merit." 


He says he is troubled, though, about the misleading reports and the trustees not attending meetings. He and Rep. Owens say the problems brought up in the report can all be addressed, though.


You can read the full audit at

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