Editorial | South Carolina’s literacy bill a good start, now work together to fund it

The following editorial appeared April 19 in The (Rock Hill) Herald:

S.C. state senators engaged in a laudable bipartisan effort this month to help children learn to read. We hope they follow up with a plan to pay for it.

The bill that passed April 9 by a margin of 36-6 was a good example of compromise to meet a common goal. Senate Republicans have been pushing a reading program, called the Read to Succeed Act, that would hold back third-graders who have not mastered reading for another year of literacy instruction starting in the 2017-18 school year.

School districts would work with a newly created state reading office to develop reading plans. The program also would require teachers to take special training in reading instruction and would establish summer reading camps around the state.

But Democrats in the Senate argued that holding students back a year would be unfair if they are not first given a real shot at becoming successful readers. Democrats proposed expanding the state's existing 4-year-old kindergarten program to all at-risk students who live in poverty or perform poorly academically.

We think both approaches are noteworthy.

But while the Legislature approved $26 million last year to expand the 4K program to children in the poorest school districts, the Senate legislation doesn't include automatic spending to pay for either the reading or kindergarten programs. The Senate, however, now is considering its version of the state budget for the next fiscal year and could propose increased money for the 4K program.

Unfortunately, expanding 4K might be difficult in the House. On the same day the Senate was negotiating its bill, the House passed its own version aimed at reforming the way public schools teach reading.

House members also would require third-graders scoring the lowest on reading tests to repeat a year, but the bill did not include an expansion of the 4K program. The House also has approved more than $30 million in new money for reading coaches and $4.5 million for summer camps in the state's budget starting July 1.

Differences in the House and Senate bills will have to be ironed out if either is to become law. We hope the spirit of compromise prevails during that process.

But neither of these initiatives should be allowed to become another unfunded mandate for local school districts. Every part of these programs - summer reading camps, training teachers, expanding 4K programs - will cost money, and if lawmakers are sincere about teaching more students how to read at an early age, they have to find a way to pay for it.