Hawaii lawmakers on the money committees ponied up $3 million this session to create a public preschool program next school year for a few hundred 4-year-olds.

The funding, say early-learning advocates, was intended for a variety of preschool options, including pre-kindergarten classrooms on Hawaii Department of Education campuses, subsidies earmarked for low-income children and centers where family members attend classes alongside their youngsters.

But the money committee chairs decided last-minute to prohibit the state from using any of the $3 million allocation for that final option, an increasingly popular preschool alternative known in education circles as family-child interaction learning.

The proviso, which didn’t appear until the final version of the supplemental budget bill, is causing consternation among members of the early-education community, who say they’re surprised and disappointed.

“It’s one thing not to include funding,” said Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jill Tokuda, who helped shepherd legislation for Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s early learning initiative and sits on the Ways and Means Committee but says she was given little input on the last-minute stipulations attached to the budget. “It’s another to prohibit funding.”

Tokuda said she doesn’t know why the money committee chairs, Sen. David Ige and Rep. Sylvia Luke, decided to block funding for the interaction preschools and that she had no say in the proviso. In fact, she said she had no idea that the rule had been included in the budget legislation until after it was too late to do any jockeying.

“Our understanding, the way the hearings had come across, is that there would’ve been some flexibility (for parent-participation programs), but apparently not,” she said.

GG Weisenfeld, who directs the governor’s Executive Office on Early Learning, said she, too, was surprised: “We didn’t have any notion that it would happen,” she said.

Neither Ige nor Luke responded to multiple requests for comment.

But a member of House Speaker Joe Souki‘s office suggested that the lawmakers included the proviso because Hawaii voters haven’t yet approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to allocate public money to private preschool providers, which includes family participation programs. The question is being placed on the ballot this November thanks to legislation that was passed last year.

“It might be premature,” said the staffer, Brian Yamane, who said he consulted the money committees after receiving Civil Beat‘s inquiry.

But it seems that it was Luke who pushed for the proviso.

An Ige staffer pointed Civil Beat to worksheets showing budget deliberations between the Senate and House over the course of the session. (He also said Ige was too busy with other matters to call back.)

The worksheets suggest that the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which Ige chairs and of which Tokuda is a member, actually wanted to set aside an additional $250,000 for family-child interaction learning on top of the $1 million Abercrombie had requested.

Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee didn’t want to grant any of the governor’s early-learning requests, which started out at nearly $5.5 million.

The contrast in funding priorities between the House and Senate money committees indicates that the prohibition on spending for family-child interaction learning programs might have been the result of compromises made between Ige and Luke.

What Is Family-Child Interaction Learning?

Family-child interaction preschools are unique in that parents or other family members go to class with their children. They tend to thrive in rural, poor communities because they provide early-learning opportunities in areas without preschools and are generally completely free; the only cost to parents is the time commitment. They serve thousands of children statewide, according to advocates.

Programs such as Partners in Development’s Ka Paalana initiative, in fact, cater to homeless families, setting up ad hoc preschool centers in beach parks and near shelters. Ka Paalana is the only homeless-serving preschool in the country that’s accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the nation’s premier preschool vetting agency.

Tokuda and the early learning office have long advocated for the programs, pointing to their cost effectiveness and their benefit to both the child and parent, including those who have gone through the justice system or are victims of abuse. Family-child interaction learning programs, Tokuda said, produce a higher return on investment than traditional preschool centers because of how inexpensive they are to run.

Administrators say it takes just $2,400 a year to educate a child (and parent) in these programs, less than a third of the estimated $8,000 it costs annually to educate a child in a center.

The programs “are really about educating communities,” Tokuda said. “Engagement of the adult makes the difference.”

The blockage is another letdown for advocates who worry about the thousands of children who won’t be allowed to enroll in kindergarten in August because of a change in the entry age. From now on, children who aren’t 5 by the start of the school year can’t enroll in kindergarten. The state is prioritizing much of the $9 million or so in total funding that has already been set aside for government-sponsored preschool options for those late-born kids.

The $3 million allocation is a lot less than the $5 million or so Abercrombie’s Executive Office on Early Learning had requested for the program to establish pre-K classrooms on DOE campuses. The original plan was to create 32 classrooms serving about 640 low-income children on 30 campuses in high-needs areas statewide, from Waianae to Molokai’s Kaunakakai.

The constricted budget means the state will likely only be able to set up 21 classrooms, or serve about 420 children. That’s in addition to subsidies for about 900 children through the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program, funding that was approved last year.

While the intention at the beginning of this year’s legislative session was to pass a separate bill with about $1 million in funding for family-child interaction programs, that bill — Senate Bill 2975 — died in conference committee. Meanwhile, the early learning office failed to secure funding for the interaction programs in its administrative budget request, Weisenfeld noted.

So advocates had resolved to count on part of the $3 million appropriation in the budget bill to go toward the interaction programs and other alternative preschool options.

That flexibility, Tokuda said, would’ve allowed more families to get their children a preschool education by “stretching the dollars the furthest.”

The prohibition on family-child interaction learning funding isn’t the only legislative disappointment for education advocates this year.

As Civil Beat reported late last month, 14 education bills that were slated for passage died at the 11th hour of the session because of a procedural mix-up. Some of them pertained to key education initiatives, such as efforts to change Hawaii’s instructional-time requirements and get air conditioning into classrooms statewide.

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