President Barack Obama’s push this week for universal early education could breathe new life into Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s mission to provide a state-funded preschool program for all Hawaii’s 4-year-olds.

But local proponents say they’re not getting ahead of themselves.

“We’re starting from scratch,” emphasized state Rep. Roy Takumi, who’s rallied behind the Hawaii initiative.

Obama hasn’t announced how much money he plans to give to individual states. Whether his program would give the state’s initiative much of a financial boost remains to be seen, Takumi said.

The president in his State of the Union address Tuesday called on Congress to make high-quality preschool available to every child in the country.

According to Obama, only 30 percent of the country’s children are in high-quality early education programs.

Both Obama and Abercrombie have cited to studies showing that a solid preschool education fosters children’s long-term success in school and as working adults. Experts say 85 percent of a child’s brain develops before age five.

In Hawaii, 42 percent of children enter kindergarten never having gone to preschool, according to state data. Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool program.

“I’m delighted President Obama emphasized his commitment to universal Early Education virtually in the same words as I indicated in my State of the State address,” wrote Abercrombie in a statement. “It’s not coincidental, it’s fundamental. There is a movement all across the nation that Early Education is absolutely essential if we want our young people to meet the standards, we expect of them and they will need, in order to face the demands of the 21st Century.”

The federal initiative is part of the Obama’s broader effort to strengthen the middle class. According to White House Education advisor Roberto Rodriguez, every dollar spent on early education produces $7 in savings. (Hawaii’s Executive Office on Early Learning suggests a more conservative return on investment, with $1 producing $4.20 in savings.)

States would help the federal government foot the bill for lower- and moderate-income children — those from families at or below 200 percent the federal poverty level. That cost-share arrangement would create an incentive for states to serve additional middle-class kids, Rodriguez said during a press conference Thursday.

Hawaii lawmakers this session are considering a package of both House and Senate bills that would create early education opportunities for preschoolers across the state.

One set of companion measures — SB1093 and HB862 — would launch a tentative School Readiness program in 2014 for the roughly 5,100 late-born 4-year-olds who will be barred from entering kindergarten once the state eliminates the junior kindergarten program next year.

All three proposals passed their second readings in both chambers.

Obama’s proposal “complements what we’re trying to do here very nicely,” said Takumi, who chairs the House Education Committee. “Whatever [funding] materializes — even if it ends up not quite what the president proposes — it’ll be a big help.”

Takumi also pointed out that unlike Race to the Top grants, the early education funding isn’t competitive. Assuming they comply with federally defined standards, all states would be eligible for the preschool initiative.

“With some predictability, we can assume that Hawaii will get some assistance to help out with our efforts,” he said.

Obama will put a dollar figure on his program once he submits his federal budget to Congress, according to White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz.

“It’s being proposed in a way that we fully intend to pay for,” Munoz said during Thursday’s press conference. “None of this adds a nickel to the deficit.”

Munoz also dispelled notions that Obama’s initiative would be earmarked for lower-income children or a mere extension of the federal Head Start program, which serves children at 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

But whether funding — both from the state Legislature and Congress — will be enough is still unclear.

Abercrombie set aside $32.5 million in his two-year budget for the School Readiness program alone.

“As we expand this to all 4-year-olds, as dollars become available, federal assistance is going to become critical,” Takumi said, noting that Arkansas took 10 years before it was able to serve all of its 4-year-olds.

For now, it’s up to the Finance committees to decide on funding. Takumi estimated that the state would need $8 million at the very least in order to provide free preschool for the children who currently qualify for free lunch. It would need $12.8 million to serve all children eligible for free and reduced-fee lunch. The other families would pay based on a sliding scale.

Funding aside, Takumi and White House officials stressed the importance of high-quality preschool programs.

Preschools would have to meet federally defined standards for class size, adult-to-student ratios, high-quality curricula and comprehensive social services. Obama’s initiative also proposes matching preschool educators’ salaries to wages earned by K-12 teachers — a provision absent from Abercrombie’s plan.

Obama Pushes for Infant and Toddler Support

Obama’s proposal includes two other components: an early learning program for children below the preschool age and an expansion of the federal voluntary home visiting program.

The infant and toddler initiative would expand the number of spots in the current Early Head Start program. In the home visiting program, social workers, nurses and other professionals would provide parent support.

Takumi questioned whether Congress would define how much money should go to the infant and toddler programs.

Right now state early learning office’s focus is on the 4-year-old initiative, according to Takumi.

“I suspect, given the way the (Obama) administration has operated, it’s not going to be so narrowly defined, but it’s not going to be a blank check,” he said.

About the Author