S.C. First Steps to School Readiness spent $4 million to keep child cares open during the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Four million dollars is barely more than a rounding error in the $1.9 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund money that the Congress sent to South Carolina to reimburse state and local agencies for COVID-19 costs. Not a large enough part of the debate that started Tuesday at the Statehouse for us to even comment on. Normally.

But the request by the First Steps early childhood education program to recover $4 million it spent during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic isn’t normal. And whether the Legislature agrees to reimburse the agency will send an important message to other state agencies about whether they should act in times of crisis to advance the values our leaders say are important or merely fixate on their own bottom lines.

Those values in this case are helping essential workers find child care while many of us stayed home – something Gov. Henry McMaster specifically advocated in refusing to order child-care centers closed – and then trying to get our economy restarted once the governor started lifting his restrictions and, most importantly, continuing our slow progress in providing young children with the critical building blocks that will determine whether they succeed or fail once they start school.

As The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reports, First Steps decided to keep making payments for 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K programs when the private day cares’ preschool programs, like public schools, were forced to close. That money was a lifeline for many day cares, especially small independent centers where two-thirds or more of their clients disappeared overnight when businesses closed and their parents no longer needed a place to keep the kids.

It was a risky move, because it left First Steps with less money to resume 4K classes in the fall. But it was one that the agency correctly deemed essential.

S.C. First Steps to School Readiness was created in 1999 to help poor parents prepare their kids for success in school, because brain research shows that the first three or four years of children’s lives are critical to the brain development that will determine their success in life. When the Legislature started funding 4-year-old kindergarten in the state’s poorest school districts in 2006, it put First Steps in charge of recruiting private, nonprofit and religious child-care centers to participate; the program also helps enroll children and trains child-care teachers.

First Steps has spent years working with the centers to get them up to the level where they could provide education instead of simply a place for parents to leave their kids during the day, and it still hasn’t been able to train up enough centers to meet the demand. Without aid to keep its network of centers afloat, all of that work could have been lost, and we would have found ourselves struggling even harder to find programs for the children who need them.

With that aid, many centers were able to survive school and business shutdowns even as more than 1,000 centers remained closed a month after Mr. McMaster started reversing the shutdowns. That means they’re available to enable parents to return to work now that businesses are reopening – a service that members of Mr. McMaster’s AccelerateSC task force identified as a top need for getting our economy back on track.

The recession means lawmakers might not be able to follow through this year on promises to use what had been expected to be robust state revenue growth to expand South Carolina’s 4K program statewide. But they can show that they are serious about reviving South Carolina’s economy, about at least maintaining their current 4K commitment, and about encouraging state agencies to focus on the big picture rather than their individual needs by reimbursing First Steps for taking a chance on advancing those goals.

— Post and Courier, Charleston