COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — Thursday afternoon South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster held a ceremonial bill signing for legislation that permanently authorizes SC First Steps.

The original legislation that established the agency in 1999 contained a sunset provision that required the General Assembly to repeatedly reauthorize First Steps. Since its inception, First Steps has been reauthorized five times – in 2006, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Under the new law, this is no longer necessary. 

“South Carolina First Steps has been a tremendous asset for our state and has helped South Carolina become a leader in early childhood education,” said Governor McMaster. “With this legislation, we reaffirm our commitment to building a strong early childhood education system and further ensure our children enter school ready to learn  – setting them and our state up for a bright future.”

First Steps was created by the General Assembly under the First Steps to School Readiness Act. This legislation made South Carolina the third state to establish a comprehensive, statewide public-private partnership for early childhood services.

“For more than two decades, First Steps has been a lifeline to families with young children, ensuring that from birth through age five, they are supported in providing their children with the best possible start in life,” said Georgia Mjartan, executive director of South Carolina First Steps. “Today, with this landmark legislation, South Carolina families can be assured that our support is unwavering. First Steps is here to stay.”

According to officials, First Steps delivers direct services that support the healthy development and learning of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

Since 2006, South Carolina First Steps has administered First Steps 4K, the state’s free four-year-old kindergarten program in private settings. The Department of Education administers the full-day 4K program in public schools. 

In 2021, Governor McMaster led the effort to expand full-day 4K to every lower-income four-year-old child in the state. South Carolinians may now choose the public, private, or for-profit childcare provider that best suits their child’s educational needs. Today, the program serves 16,103 children, officials say that’s an all-time high. 

“I am humbled by the support and help of the community and everyone who stepped in to help with this legislation,” said Representative Stewart Jones (R-Laurens). “This is about opportunity and ensuring every child in South Carolina has an opportunity to have a great education and a future.”

The law also addresses the membership and governance of local First Steps Partnerships, the South Carolina Office of First Steps to School Readiness, and the South Carolina Early Childhood Advisory Council.

The legislation passed unanimously in the House and the Senate. It took effect on June 19.