There’s an office, a director and a mission but not a lot of funding.

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie wants to change that.

After listening to a group of chubby-cheeked preschoolers sing to him, the governor on Wednesday unveiled his plan to provide a publicly funded early learning program for all of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds.

He’s already set aside $32.5 million for the program in his two-year budget, which awaits approval by the state Legislature. About $3.5 million would be dedicated to planning and developing the program over the course of this year. The rest of the money would go toward implementing the first phase of the program, which he hopes will be up and running by the 2014-2015 school year.

“So much is lost because children come into school not ready (for kindergarten),” said Abercrombie at the press conference, which was held at Seagull School’s Early Education Center. “As this 21st century rockets ahead … it’s our responsibility, our obligation to see that they are ready.”

But the initiative would be implemented gradually, and it’d be years before the program is open to all of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds.

The program in its first year would serve about 3,500 4-year-olds born after July, about a fourth of whom come from lower-income families.

The state hopes to enroll as many as 17,000 4-year-olds by 2021, according to Terry Lock, director of the Executive Office on Early Learning.

The early learning office was established last year after being passed by the Legislature in June. The law also changed the age criteria for children eligible to enroll in kindergarten starting with the 2014-2015 school year. One of Lock’s first duties was to figure out how much the early learning program would cost.

The legislation eliminated the junior kindergarten program — which served 4-year-olds born after July — and moved the birthday cutoff to July 31. The first year of the school readiness program is expected serve the cohort of children who will miss that cutoff.

The elimination of junior kindergarten was the impetus for the school readiness program, said Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and introduced the law.

“The sunsetting of junior kindergarten was really the reason why we had to have this plan in place,” she told Civil Beat. “It was that catalyst for change — that was the wall that was going to prevent us from kicking the can down the road any further.”

Hawaii is one of just 11 states in the country without a publicly funded preschool program. Early education advocates highlight the value of school readiness programs, pointing out that 85 percent of a child’s brain development takes place before age five.

Every $1 spent on high-quality early childhood services in Hawaii produces $4.20 in return by creating jobs and reducing spending on social welfare services and the justice system, Lock said.

The vast majority of preschools in Hawaii are private, which puts at a disadvantage children whose parents can’t afford the tuition, according to Lock.

“There’s a wide school readiness gap, and we’re going to close that gap with this program,” she said.

About 42 percent of the state’s children enter kindergarten never having attended preschool.

Lock said the state plans to partner with the private providers and incorporate many of the 9,000 early education specialists already in the workforce.

“We want to boost their skills to better help our keiki,” she said.

Next Steps: Getting Funding and Designing Program

State lawmakers and advocacy groups have long pushed for statewide school readiness program, but ongoing efforts have been beset by a number of challenges, including the lack of adequate funding and severe capacity constraints.

Now, an economic turnaround and a commitment from the administration mean the state has momentum to move forward with the plan, Abercrombie said at the press conference. “We’re going to have carried-through support,” he said.

Exactly what the program would look like down the line depends largely on how much funding the state can secure from the Legislature. But both Tokuda and Lock stressed that they’re also going to put a concerted effort into developing a worthwhile, lasting program that incorporates high-quality educational models — an ongoing process that entails in-depth planning and coordination among stakeholders.

“There are a lot of moving parts, and there are a number of issues to be dealt with,” including pulling together a skilled work force, coordinating with providers, finding adequate facilities and developing a curriculum, Tokuda told Civil Beat. “It’s not as simple as saying ‘We want preschools, so put the money down.’”

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