Looking for childcare? SC parents of pre-K siblings can get free access in new program

·3 min read

South Carolina children with a sibling enrolled in the state’s private pre-kindergarten program could get free access this year to child care and other after-school programming.

Starting Aug. 16, South Carolina’s First Steps, a state early childhood program aimed at preparing children for school, will offer free child care or after-school programming to 4K siblings up to 12 years of age.

“This is a transformative opportunity for families,” Georgia Mjartan, First Steps’ executive director said in a news release. “With First Steps 4K + Siblings, parents will be able to fully return to work or school, knowing that all of their children are learning and growing in a safe, nurturing environment.”

First Steps and the state Department of Social Services partnered on the idea before the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the economy rebounded, it became urgently apparent that parents needed child care options.

“Families need to be able to go back to work,” said Mjartan, who added no federal pandemic relief is paying for the program. “Now is when families need this most.”

The free one-year scholarship program will primarily help low-income parents who also have children ages 3 or younger and need child care to allow them to go to work.

“In fact, there were families that declined that free 4K program because it was a lift for them to go and get their child to the program only to turnaround and go home to take care of their younger siblings,” Mjartan said in an interview.

Martha Strickland, First Steps’ 4K director estimates as many of 5% of accepted students are unable to take advantage of the free program because parents have other child care issues.

The 4K Plus Siblings program also will pay for after-school programs for school-aged children, whether it be at the child’s school or another facility, Strickland said.

“A lot of children across the state don’t have access to after-school programs in their school buildings, and even when those after-school programs are available, often times they are available for a fee that is sometimes beyond the reach of the families,” Mjartan said.

“This makes available a solution for the comprehensive care needs families are experiencing,” Mjartan added.

If a child qualifies for First Steps 4K, then their siblings qualify for the full-year child care or after school scholarship.

Also if parents enroll children in the 4K plus Siblings program, Social Services will remove the work, school or training requirements it has in place for parents for in its child care assistance program.

“We all agree that high quality early education benefits both children and their families,” said Social Services Director Michael Leach. “And DSS stands ready to lead with First Steps to implement this partnership.”

The programs will only take place in facilities that provide a higher level of programming in child care centers or other settings.

First Steps and the state’s child-welfare agency said the cost of quality child care is unaffordable for most South Carolina families. According to Child Care Aware of America, the average annual cost of center-based care for two children is $18,031 per year, which is 21% of the state’s median income for married couples and 69% of the median income for single parents.

First Steps, which works with 211 daycare centers in 40 counties in the state, has about 2,200 enrolled 4-year-old kindergarten students. It estimates more than 1,300 families will benefit from the new scholarship program during the upcoming school year.

Students qualify for needs-based 4K if they’re Medicaid eligible, homeless, in foster care or eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunch.

Social Services said about 14,775 children have a child care provider through the state’s voucher program.

Families can apply for the First Steps 4K Plus Siblings at Free4KSC.org. Sibling scholarships can be applied toward enrollment at any licensed child care center that participates in ABC Quality, the state’s voluntary quality rating and improvement system.

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