Editor’s Note: From preschool to college, Hawaii’s education system has issues. Today Civil Beat welcomes Kim Coco Iwamoto to the discussion. The former member of the state Board of Education will write about education as our newest columnist.

In 2010, early childhood education advocates seemed to have the perfect trifecta in place: a new governor, his appointed Board of Education and committed Education Committee chairs in the Legislature.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie gave “Early Childhood Education” its own heading in his comprehensive plan, “A New Day in Hawaii,” not merely a subset of “Education.” He hand-picked all the BOE members and ensured they were committed to his “New Day.”

And advocates would never find two legislators more knowledgeable about early learning or more skilled at passing legislation than those Education Committee chairs, Sen. Jill Tokuda and Rep. Roy Takumi.

No on 4 preschool children

Children in a campaign commercial for the ill-fated constitutional amendment that would have allowed public spending on private preschools.

Courtesy of For the Future of Our Keiki

The Glass Half-Full

In 2010, the Department of Education was already providing educational services statewide, to more than 5,000 4-year-olds enrolled as junior kindergarteners. (Technically these students were at least 4 years and 7 months old.) Hawaii was the only state to enroll any 4-year-olds systemwide; we were considered ahead of the game by some. Others did not like that the DOE put 4-year-olds in the same classroom as 5-year-olds.

In 2010, the DOE announced that it would be using a portion of its $75 million Race To The Top federal grant to “expand pre-kindergarten opportunities.”

If one of the goals in 2010 was to offer all 4-year-olds some kind of educational services, then we were already almost halfway there. All Hawaii had to do was push back the entry age so that any child who was 4 by the time school started could enroll. Of course it is not that simple — it would take more space and more money.

Every DOE principal is used to coping with student overpopulation or underpopulation. School are designed for specific numbers of students, but the geographic community the school serves goes through population growth cycles and demographic shifts. Therefore, during its lifespan, a school is more often in one of those imperfect states than within its ideal student count.

The challenge of “more money” exists whether we expand 4-year-old enrollment within the DOE or send all 4-year-olds to publicly funded private preschools. Early childhood education is an investment no matter who provides the services.

The trifecta decided to expend its collaborative capital to make a full-court press for the publicly funded private preschools option. Did it realize back in 2010 what it was risking if it didn’t make its shot?

On Nov. 4, voters rejected a Constitutional Amendment No. 4 that would have allow state funds to go to private preschools.

Today, early childhood education in Hawaii looks like this: more than 5,000 4-year-olds statutorily barred from enrolling as junior kindergarteners in DOE schools, DOE has only enough funding to provide alternative programs for 365 4-year-olds, no public funding for private preschools, and Hawaii is less qualified to merit federal grants to expand early learning opportunities across the state.

Before we can dream of a new life for early childhood education in Hawaii, it may help to do an autopsy on the old one.

Fill Rest of Glass by Emptying It

By 2012, Hawaii was out of the economic recession and millions more federal dollars were available to support expanding early learning. However, that year the Legislature and governor passed laws to eliminate junior kindergarten for 4 1/2-year-olds — without safeguarding a replacement program to serve this population.

A review of the last written testimonies submitted on SB 2545 revealed an interesting split between the positions of the governor, the DOE, and their early childhood education partners.

Almost all of the testimony from non-profit organizations supporting early childhood education, including Early Learning Council, HE`E, Good Beginnings Alliance, and Be My Voice Hawaii, urged lawmakers to ensure there would be replacement programs or alternative options to provide educational services for displaced 4-year-olds.

The governor’s testimony stated his strong support for the bill. However, he apparently felt that removing 4-year-olds from the DOE with no replacement programs “advances the governor’s very important early childhood education priority.”  After writing four paragraphs extolling the value of early childhood education, the only amendment he asked for was an additional half-million dollars to fund executive staff, board and councils so they could continue to “focus on a plan to target 4-year-olds.”

The loss of the Yes on 4 campaign is still fresh, and the current degradation of early childhood education is still sinking in.

Superintendent Kathy Matayoshi’s testimony underscored the DOE’s support of the cuts in services to 4-year-olds because it would “bring Hawaii in line with other public school systems nationally.” In fact, removing the only exceptional element that set Hawaii apart from other states would weaken the DOE’s future applications for additional federal grants to expand early learning because we were now in the process of retracting educational services.

Despite affirming the importance of partnering with early childhood education advocates and organizations, the governor ignored their pleas for statutorily preserved alternatives. On June 29, 2012, when SB 2545 became Act 176, everyone was put on notice that in exactly two years, 4 1/2-year-olds would be barred from enrolling into DOE schools as junior kindergarteners.

Removing the default safety net of junior kindergarten forced everyone’s hand. In cinematic parlance, the kids were rounded up and tied to the train tracks. Ransom A: Either the Legislature provides sufficient funding for the unenthusiastic DOE to roll out its own “preschool” for all 4-year-olds; or, Ransom B: Pass a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to provide sufficient funding to private preschools to deliver education services to four year-olds.

At this point, the advocates would have to double-down on Ransom B. The Yes on 4 campaign was launched to support the ballot initiative, headed by Good Beginnings Alliance Executive Director Deborah Zysman.

Broken Glass: The Election Aftermath

The loss of the Yes on 4 campaign is still fresh, and the current degradation of early childhood education is still sinking in. Takumi and Tokuda called in from different mainland time zones to provide late-night comment for this column. Jet-lag might have affected the directness of their responses.

Both Zysman and Tokuda assessed the election results similarly: While the initiative did not pass, it sent a strong message that Hawaii appreciates the importance of early childhood education; and precinct results showed more support where there is less access to preschool.

When asked what went wrong, Tokuda, Takumi and Zysman would only point to education’s favorite go-to scapegoat: the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA). They all expressed various degrees of frustration with the HSTA’s efforts against the ballot initiative. Takumi noted that HSTA was the only organization against it.

“We will still need to look for a mixed delivery solution for early childhood education.” — Sen. Jill Tokuda

The measure was voted down, so clearly HSTA was not the only opponent, but no other organization had the resources and infrastructure in place to be heard alongside the millionaire/billionaire funded Yes on 4 campaign.

After discussing the current lack of education services for the 5,000-plus 4-year-olds who could not enroll into a public school this year, Takumi was asked whether he held any regrets. Takumi’s response went back to the HSTA, “they claim they support early childhood education, but the HSTA has never delivered a proposal outlining how the DOE should implement it.”

Notwithstanding that it is not HSTA’s job to do that, even Takumi admits that the main obstacle to early childhood education has always been one of sufficient funding. In Hawaii, unlike any other state, it is the sole responsibility of the state Legislature to raise and allocate state funds for public education.

Tokuda was asked to explain how SB 2545 came out of Conference Committee without any safety net in place for the currently abandoned 4-year-olds, despite almost unanimous written testimony from early education advocates pleading for some statutory commitment for a replacement program. Tokuda defended her actions by noting that there was support for the bill in its final form beyond what was preserved as written testimony.

A New, Empty Glass: Another Vote in 2016?

If the DOE was able to provide educational services to all 4-year-olds across the state, would Zysman, Tokuda and Takumi still support amending the constitution in the next election to allow private preschools access to public funds?

“We will still need to look for a mixed delivery solution for early childhood education,” Tokuda said, adding the DOE does not have the capacity to provide enough stand-alone classrooms for all 4-year-olds.

Zysman answered the question more directly and added that early childhood education doesn’t begin and end with 4-year-olds. She made numerous references to the educational needs of all keiki, including newborns, and asked, “Do we expect the DOE to provide educational services to children this young?” Zysman continues to support the need to change the constitution so that public funds can be used to help low-income families who want educational services, not just social services, for their children up to age 4.

It would not be a huge stretch for Kamehameha Schools to assist stand-alone preschools to become charter preschools and be able to receive state funds.

Takumi pointed out that the Nov. 4 measure lost “by just 11 points!” He did not commit to a direct answer, but he made an interesting reference: “other constitutional amendments were put on the ballot three times before they got enough votes to pass.”

Even if Takumi holds onto the dream of a private-public partnership for preschool funding, the private partners are still going to expect some public funds from the legislature. Had the measure passed, where would the Legislature have gotten the money to pass through to the private preschools? HSTA’s challenge to the Legislature to provide detailed answers to these types of questions may have been valid.

Perhaps a broad array of education advocates should push for a more progressive and more practical constitutional amendment. The question could read, “Should the Constitution be amended to require the Legislature to fully fund quality public education from Preschool through Grade 16 (College Senior)?”

This could bring a game-changing voter bloc to the polls. Then it will be the Legislature challenging the advocates to provide details before passing a bill that puts this question on the ballot.

The Charter School Option

Ballot initiatives aside, the DOE is in the process of applying for federal grants that will allow charter schools to expand early childhood education opportunities.

Perhaps those private preschools that would have received public funds if the Nov. 4 measure had passed could instead apply to become charter schools. Tokuda and Takumi could not immediately cite anything in the charter school law that would prohibit a stand-alone preschool from applying for a charter. Even if there was a statutory obstacle, it is much easier to amend a statute than the constitution.

Kamehameha Schools has been an incredible private partner to public charter schools and to private/non-profit preschools. It would not be a huge stretch for Kamehameha Schools to assist stand-alone preschools to become charter preschools and be able to receive state funds.

As a state chartered preschool, the safeguards are already in place to ensure teachers are highly qualified professionals and are able to earn a livable wage. We can avoid public funds being directed toward private preschools that try to increase profits by paying preschool teachers babysitter wages.

The DOE and state chartered schools are the only education providers in Hawaii that requires licensure of teaching professionals. According to Lynn Hammonds, executive director of the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board, a total of 687 Early Childhood Education licenses have been issued by HTSB since July 1, 2002.

Can we ever go back to the DOE for early childhood education?

Before supporting the removal of 4-year-olds from the DOE’s kindergarten classrooms, the BOE and the Legislature could have directed the DOE to present its academic growth model data comparing students who entered the DOE at 4, 5 or 6 years old.

Takumi conceded that this comparative data would have been informative. It would have been harder to bar 4-year-olds from DOE kindergarten if the data demonstrated that these 4-year-olds do better academically than those who did not attend a DOE kindergarten.

The DOE holds this data, and if it had shown that, the data would been front and center during the campaign. If every education reform advocate and legislator is “data-driven,” how could this obvious and crucial comparative data be overlooked?

The move toward an appointed BOE promised greater alignment between the governor and the DOE. If the DOE’s detachment from providing educational services to 4-year-olds reflects direction from Gov. Abercrombie and his BOE, then we may see a change in the DOE’s position or leadership when Gov.-Elect David Ige steps in with his new BOE.

Let’s hope Ige’s own “New Day” for education will include the 4-year-olds left behind when Abercrombie’s canoe paddled into the sunset.

Editor’s Note: The Omidyar Family Trust donated at least $350,000 to the Good Beginnings Alliance campaign in support of Question No. 4. The trust is affiliated with Civil Beat founder and publisher Pierre Omidyar. Additionally, the Executive Office on Early Learning receives in-kind support from The Omidyar Group and Collaborative Leaders Network, as well as grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation via the Omidyar Ohana Fund.

About the Author

  • Kim Coco Iwamoto
    Kim Coco Iwamoto was elected to the Hawaii Board of Education in 2006 and served until 2011. She also served on the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board from 2009 to 2011 and the Career & Technical Education Coordinating Advisory Council from 2007 to 2011. She was appointed to a four-year term on the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission in 2012.