Both the state Senate and House education committees on Friday approved measures proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to spend public money on private preschools. That’s a key part of an initiative to provide a statewide early learning program for all Hawaii’s 4-year-olds.

Accompanying the proposed amendment are two measures that would allow the state to launch an early learning program in partnership with existing private preschool providers. Both proposals were also approved by the committees this week.

“While we’re perfectly capable of engaging in partnerships right now … as we move forward, we do not want to have someone contend that we are not capable of signing contracts with folks in the private sector” and disrupt the initiative, said Gov. Neil Abercrombie at the House hearing Friday.

A section in Article X of Hawaii’s constitution prohibits the appropriation of public funds to any private educational institution. There are roughly 570 child care centers in the state, the vast majority of which are private.

Senate Bill 1084 and House Bill 853 propose amending the section to make an exception for early childhood education programs.

“[P]ublic funds may be appropriated for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs as provided by law,” the amendment would say. If approved by the Legislature, voters will be asked to decide on the measure on the November 2014 ballot.

The amendment is being proposed at the recommendation of Hawaii Attorney General David Louie, who pointed out that the original constitutional provision was designed to ensure that public schools are competitive with private schools.

Proponents emphasized that the amendment would not be required before launching the school readiness program. The program would provide preschool for the roughly 3,500 late-born 4-year-olds who will not be able to enter kindergarten due to the loss of the state’s junior kindergarten program. Junior kindergarten is slated for elimination in the 2014 school year.

The amendment would, however, be necessary to move forward with the full-blown early education program, Louie said. The large-scale initiative would serve as many as 17,000 4-year-olds by 2021.

Good Beginnings Alliance Executive Director Deborah Zysman urged the state to come up with a plan to implement an early learning program if the amendment is not passed by voters.

“If we’re not able to get a constitutional amendment through that does not mean we shouldn’t do anything,” she said.

Abercrombie pointed out that the concerns over the amendment primarily revolve around whether the preschool program would undermine the public school system’s financial support.

But critics also question whether it’s reasonable for the state to partner with preschools affiliated with religious institutions.

Lawmakers emphasized that they would have control over the programs operated in partnership with private providers. According to Louie, preschools would have to change any discriminatory policies.

In general, this week’s hearings on the school readiness and early childhood education proposals have garnered widespread support from state departments and preschool practitioners.

The program would be operated under the state’s new Executive Office on Early Learning. It would be grouped with the Hawaii Department of Education for administrative purposes only, according to Abercrombie.

Advocates say that preschool is a critical investment for the state’s future, citing research that shows that children without a preschool background perform much more poorly than their peers in elementary school. Studies show that 85 percent of a child’s brain develops before age five, experts say.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool program, and roughly 42 percent of Hawaii’s kindergarteners did not attend preschool.

“It’s an incontrovertible fact that we have an increasingly divided gap between those come to kindergarten prepared … and those who do not,” Abercrombie said. “It’s been extraordinarily difficult for those young people to close that gap.”

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