Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s three early education proposals are sailing through the Legislature, but the money he originally proposed to pay for the initiative’s first phase — the School Readiness program — got scrapped by the state House last week.

Now, supporters are pinning their hopes on the Senate finance committee, which is expected to take up the budget bill Tuesday, to restore the funding. On Monday, advocates gathered at the state Capitol for an informational briefing to update the public on the early education bills and encourage supporters to testify on the budget bill Tuesday.

The House Finance committee earlier this month amended Abercrombie’s state budget bill, House Bill 200, to exclude the roughly $32.5 million that he had set aside for the program.

The School Readiness program would provide preschool services to the estimated 3,500 late-born 4-year-olds who are expected to need them in the 2014-15 school year, when the state’s junior kindergarten program is slated for elimination. The program is part of a longer-term, multi-year plan that would establish a statewide early learning system.

“The bills were moving with the understanding that this funding for it would be in the budget,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Senate Education committee and has long advocated for a publicly funded preschool program.

The Senate Ways and Means committee is scheduled to hear the budget bill Tuesday, and early education advocates say they’re hopeful that monies for the School Readiness program will be reincorporated into the state budget. But whether it’ll be enough to move the initiative forward remains to be seen.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll get some funding for the School Readiness program,” said Executive Office on Early Learning Executive Directory Terry Lock, noting that the finance committee’s amendments were likely made with the expectation that the Senate would reestablish some school readiness monies. “But we’ll have to see as the early learning bills continue through the legislative process.”

The state would need $8 million at the very least to provide free preschool services for children who qualify for free lunch. It would need about $12.8 million to serve children eligible for free and reduced-fee lunch.

Abercrombie’s proposed budget set aside nearly $23 million to fund direct preschool services for both those low-income children — as well as the moderate- and high-income children whose families would pay on a sliding scale. (The rest of the $32.5 million would go toward capacity building, quality assurance and other administrative costs.)

But if the Legislature decides not to devote that $8 million, proponents don’t have a Plan B.

“It rams up the intensity for us,” said Tokuda. “I think we’re going to have to continue to work very, very hard to make sure that there are significant resources included in every version of the budget going forward and that the measures pass . . . We have to keep pushing, 110 percent, 200 percent because failure is not an option.”

Advocates say junior kindergarten’s elimination makes School Readiness funding crucial. Families of the approximately 5,100 children who were born after July 2009 — and would otherwise enroll in junior kindergarten — will have to find other options once the 2014-15 school year rolls around. Officials estimate that roughly two-thirds of those children would enroll in the state-funded program.

Lock emphasized that it’s ultimately up to lawmakers whether to set monies aside for the first phase of the early learning program. If the funding doesn’t come through, Lock speculated that the state might choose to reestablish the junior kindergarten program.

Lock added, however, that neither she nor Abercrombie want to reinstate junior kindergarten.

State Budget and Finance Director Kalbert Young said he’s encouraging the Senate Ways and Means committee to include school readiness funding in its version of the budget bill.

According to Young, the House Finance committee deleted funding for the School Readiness program in light of concerns that the full-blown initiative’s long-term costs still have to be fleshed out.

Advocates also pointed out that the School Readiness program was among several initiatives whose funding was cut by the Finance committee.

Committee members on Monday did not return a request for comment.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool program. Advocates say a coordinated early childhood system — which the Executive Office on Early Learning hopes would eventually include programs for all children from birth through age 8 — is a critical investment for the state’s future.

Experts say that every $1 invested today in early education will generate $4.20 in future savings because students who enter school never having attended preschool are more likely to drop out of school, become a teen parent, be arrested for violent crime and never attend college. President Barack Obama has used similar talking points in his federal early childhood initiative.

“An ounce of prevention today is worth so much in terms of that pound of care we’re talking about later,” Tokuda said at the informational briefing.

“The returns are much greater than what Wall Street has returned,” added House Education Chair Roy Takumi, who’s advocated for an early learning system since becoming the committee’s chair in 2002.

But some critics doubt preschool’s value, while others say that the state should instead concentrate its money at the K-12 level.

Others say the School Readiness program shouldn’t be implemented until a constitutional amendment is ratified.

A section in Article X of Hawaii’s constitution prohibits the state from appropriating public funds to any private educational institution. The state would use taxpayer dollars to fund partnerships with private preschools, which constitute the vast majority of current providers.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has testified in opposition of the constitutional amendment, reiterating its commitment to “promoting the cause of
public education, preserving the principle of separation of church and state, protecting the economic security of public education employees, and lastly achieving racial integration in the public schools and preventing desegregation.”

The constitutional amendment proposal is currently advancing through the House.

The Executive Office on Early Learning receives in-kind services and support from The Omidyar Group as well as grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation via the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Ohana Fund. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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