In advertising it is called “inoculation advertising.”
When you expect to get slammed you inoculate yourself against the poison of criticism by seizing the issue and turning it your way.
That is what Gov. Neil Abercrombie seemed to be doing in his recent TV commercial touting his support for public preschool education in Hawaii.
Looking grandfatherly in the ad, surrounded by a group of little children. Abercrombie says, “…President Obama has made early education a top priority. And so have I. If preschool can make the difference between good and great for our children, how can we say no?”
Interestingly, Abercrombie refrains from outlining in the ad what he has done to achieve his goal of allocating $125 million in tax revenue a year to subsidize preschool education for all of Hawaiiʻs 4-year-olds.
That’s because Abercrombie has achieved very little this legislative session. And last year, he didn’t get very far either.
Legislators passed only two initiatives this year directly related to promoting early education in Hawaii’s public schools. One was a bill to make kindergarten mandatory for all children, a gesture seen as largely symbolic since 97 percent of Hawaii children already attend kindergarten voluntarily.
Yet educator Lynn Cabato, executive director of the state’s largest Head Start program, says there still is merit to the new law because it validates the importance of early education and will reduce absenteeism, which currently runs high in kindergarten classes.
The other early education initiative lawmakers approved was a budget appropriation of $3 million to set up preschool learning programs for 420 children in 21 Hawaii public school classrooms.
“Itʻs disappointing,” says GG Weisenfeld, director of the governor’s Executive Office on Early Learning. The appropriation was a lot less than the $4.47 million the office requested to open up 32 public school classrooms for 640 preschool students. Still, Weisenfeld called the reduced appropriation “a beginning that we expect to increase each year.”
Weisenfeld says she expects that in 10 years, publicly funded preschool will be “a given.”
The governorʻs early learning office also failed to persuade lawmakers to appropriate $1 million to help 400 pre-kindergarten children from eligible low-income families in family-child interaction learning programs. Lawmakers granted $1 million for the successful program last year but not this year.
The program requires low-income parents or caregivers to attend sessions with their children and education specialists to help prepare the children for school.
Another bill that would have sped up the governor’s early childhood learning plan hit a stone wall.
Voters will decide in November if they want to approve a constitutional amendment to allow public money to be used to pay for Hawaii 4-year-olds to attend private preschools, a necessary part of the governor’s plan.
But even if the amendment is ratified, lawmakers this year killed the so-called “enabling legislation,” which is the bill that would spell out how the money would be used for the program.
Legislators refused to pass the bill saying it was premature.
You can blame lawmakers for all the setbacks. But the governor also has to take some of the blame. Abercrombie, a Democratic governor really should have been able to urge his fellow Democrats, who control the Legislature, to do more.
In addition, the governor had another strong card to play; he appoints the Board of Education.
In a recent column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser political reporter Richard Borreca said lawmakers were murmuring privately that Abercrombie was less than attentive and skilled this year at persuading the legislature to pass his key bills; one lawmaker described the governor’s effort as “lukewarm.”
Borreca says, “After two years of highlighting early childhood education, Abercrombie has failed to get the defining portions of his programs passed.”
Education specialist Gale Flynn says she would have liked to see Abercrombie come up with better results working with the Legislature.
Flynn says, “The governor has been in office for three years and says early learning is a priority, yet this has not resulted in effective programs for early leaning.”
She also faults the public. “There were not enough parents knocking down the doors of legislators to demand that they support preschool education.”
Flynn is the early education project director for Hookakoo Corporation, a charter school management organization.
On top of all of these disappointments is the fact that 5,100 children will be prevented from attending public school kindergarten this school year.
Formerly Hawaii children could enter kindergarten if they turned five by Dec. 31 of the school year, but a law passed before Abercrombie got into office, which goes into effect this year, permits only children who turn five by July 31 of the school year to enroll.
Abercrombie played a part in making matters worse by signing a bill in 2012 to eliminate junior kindergarten in public schools, the classrooms where the now turned-away children could have gone to learn.
Former lawmaker and early childhood education advocate Lyla Berg wrote in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser op-ed piece: “The governor needs to pay attention. He needs to stop believing a few million dollars given to a subsidy program for the ‘most vulnerable’ children or creating 30 pilot preschool classrooms in the Department of Education for 600 children (now only 21 classrooms for 420 children) can account for the thousands of children who will be disallowed kindergarten entry in the remaining 153 public elementary schools.”
The subsidy program Berg is talking about is $6 million that the Legislature granted the Department of Human Services last year for the governor’s Preschool Open Doors subsidy program, which is intended to help serve 1,200 of the 5,100 children impacted by the change in kindergarten eligibility age.
In Preschool Open Doors, eligible low-income parents apply for vouchers to pay for preschool for their children. But it is not a panacea. If the preschools to which the parents apply do not have space for their children, they are out of luck.
Lynn Cabato, executive director of the Honolulu Community Action Program’s Head Start, says, “If a parent can’t find placement for a child, the child could end up being at home. That’s what we are trying to avoid.”
Cabato says not just Head Start but many other preschool programs in the state are now challenged by the 5,100 children unable to enter kindergarten this year whose parents are knocking on their doors to seek enrollment. She is unsure of how many preschoolers she can accept into her program.
So back to Abercrombie’s television commercial.
In the ad, the governor calls early education a top priority. And that’s the irony.
If the ad was intended to protect him from criticism, it has only opened the door for a big question: If the governor cares so much about public preschool education, then why hasn’t he done more to make it happen?