Come November, voters will decide whether to change Hawaii’s constitution and allow the state to spend public money on private preschool programs.

The amendment is key to establishing an early education system in Hawaii, say supporters, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona.

They believe it could expand access to preschool for thousands of 4-year-olds who miss out because their families can’t afford it. Hawaii is currently the only state that constitutionally prohibits public funding of private preschools.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

Pearl City’s Keiki Care Center of Hawaii is a private preschool that could be eligible for public funding if the constitutional amendment is passed.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

But the Hawaii State Teachers Association and other critics question the prospect of doling out taxpayer money to private providers, including those with religious affiliations. Opponents include Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige, who believes the proposal is ill-conceived and could lead to wasteful spending.

Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Independent Party candidate for governor, supports the concept but questions its feasibility, and says he needs more clarity as to how a public-private system could be implemented.

The outcome of the ballot initiative will likely shape the future of preschool education in the state: how much it costs, who pays the bills and what kinds of children participate.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association and other critics question the prospect of doling out taxpayer money to private providers, including those with religious affiliations.

The annual estimated cost of universal preschool in Hawaii varies widely, from $40 million to $125 million. The amendment wouldn’t guarantee universal preschool but would allow the state to consider a public-private approach — a strategy that advocates say would save taxpayer dollars.

But it wouldn’t eliminate the need to develop more preschools; there almost certainly isn’t enough capacity in existing facilities, private or public.

“What we’re really talking about is filling the gap for the children who are not already covered, not already in a preschool program,” said Jim Shon, executive director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, which hasn’t taken a position on the amendment. “There’s been a lot of grumbling about how this is going to work.”

“The research is very strongly in favor of preschool education as having a lasting effect … it’s a no-brainer,” Shon said. “Now it becomes a question of how much it should cost, not to mention the philosophical, employment and other issues that come into play.”

Hawaii’s Preschools Mostly Private

In Hawaii, where 96 percent of existing preschools are private, tuition for a 4-year-old costs $680 a month on average, according to data from Child Care Aware of America. That’s more than $8,000 a year — not much less than the $9,840 the University of Hawaii at Manoa charges for in-state tuition. 

The cost helps explain why thousands of children in Hawaii enter kindergarten each year having never attended preschool. 

Some fear those numbers are growing now that the state has changed its kindergarten age requirements, barring 5,000 or so late-born children from enrolling each year. (About 5,800 fewer children enrolled in kindergarten this year compared to last year.)

“What we’re really talking about is filling the gap for the children who are not already covered, not already in a preschool program.” — Jim Shon, Hawaii Educational Policy Center

The change went into effect this fall, two years after lawmakers voted to repeal a “junior kindergarten” program designed for those late-born kids. Meanwhile, the federally funded Head Start centers, which serve the lowest-income children, last year lost more than $1 million in funding because of sequestration.

Given how much the brain develops before age 5, and given the kinds of skills — cognitive, social, emotional, motor — a child gains in a quality preschool program, advocates say the cost barrier triggers an achievement gap that widens over time. Research shows that having a quality preschool education increases the chances that a person will graduate from high school, get a good job and avoid trouble with the law.

There are about 17,500 4-year-olds in Hawaii in any given year. Close to half of them end up going to kindergarten having never attended preschool, though attendance rates vary by island. On Oahu, for example, 43 percent of kindergartners lack prior education, according to Good Beginnings Alliance. On the Big Island, it’s 48 percent.

The Alliance, a local children’s advocacy group that recently launched a campaign to promote the constitutional amendment, wants to increase preschool attendance rates to 85 percent. It’s especially concerned about children from working- and middle-class families who don’t qualify for a subsidy program or Head Start but still can’t afford preschool tuition.

(Hawaii’s preschool enrollment rates are slightly better than those nationally. According to the KIDS COUNT data center, 54 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children across the country miss out on preschool.)

Question No. 4 On the Ballot

Few people deny that improving early education should be a priority for the state. The question is how.

A Good Beginnings Alliance-funded poll conducted by QMark Research among 400 registered voters in 2013 found that 82 percent of them support free or subsidized preschoolBut the same survey also found that, after hearing arguments on both sides of the issue, 52 percent of participants said they support amending the constitution, while 43 percent of them said they opposed the change.

A joint Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now poll conducted in February found that 62 percent of voters supported the amendment while 33 percent opposed it.

The proposed amendment will appear on the ballot as Question No. 4, thanks to a bill passed by lawmakers last year.

Question No. 4 asks:

“Shall the appropriation of public funds be permitted for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs, as provided by law, to help the State meet its goal of providing an early learning system for the children of Hawaii?”

A review of public testimony — as well as lawmakers’ voting records — suggests that the legislation that enabled the ballot initiative was popular. The vast majority of testimony supported the measure. Just 18 of the state’s 76 legislators voted against the bill — including seven of the eight Republicans.  

Interestingly, Ige, who opposes the amendment and is being supported by the HSTA in his campaign, voted in favor of the bill in the Legislature.

Outside money is already flowing into the Good Beginnings Alliance’s political action committee “Yes on 4” to promote the initiative. Campaign finance records show that Kamehameha Schools, which runs about 30 privately operated preschools statewide, gave the campaign $500,000 in July — the biggest donation included in filings as of Sunday. The Pacific Resource Partnership gave another $5,000.

If passed, the amendment would permit the state to set aside public funds “for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs” — as long as those programs don’t discriminate based on race, religion, sex or ancestry. Faith-based preschools that don’t want to adopt those rules wouldn’t be eligible.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14

Monthly tuition for a child at Keiki Care Center of Hawaii is about $750.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The amendment wouldn’t establish a specific program or commit funding; instead, it would create a vehicle for developing the public-private early learning system that outgoing Gov. Neil Abercrombie and others have long promoted. In theory, that public-private early learning system would involve subsidizing tuition for families based on their ability to pay.

That system is multifaceted and also includes strategies that are more palatable to opponents of the amendment. They include the expansion of Preschool Open Doors, a subsidy program under the Department of Human Services earmarked for low-income children, and the creation of free, public preschool classrooms on Hawaii Department of Education campuses — both of which are already being tested.

Lawmakers last session set aside $6 million to fund additional Preschool Open Doors subsidies this year for the low-income, late-born children who were barred from kindergarten because of the age change.

And this year the state has $3 million to pilot a pre-kindergarten program at 18 public schools serving about 420 low-income children.

Until that $3 million was approved, Hawaii was one of just 10 states without a public preschool program.

‘It Opens a Lot of Windows and Doors’

Advocates of the amendment say the existing options aren’t enough.

The public-private system, they argue, offers the most sensible, cost-effective and high-quality strategy for improving access to preschool in the state.

“The reason we’re working on this ballot initiative is that it will enable us to work with many different options — it opens up a lot of windows and doors,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance. “If we don’t pass it, the only real option is expanding a pre-K system in the DOE, which we’re for. The issue is, without it, we really can’t do a lot of other things.”

Duke Aiona said he supports the constitutional amendment because it would create early education opportunities. He’s not convinced that a pure DOE-run program would serve the state’s needs.

Zysman noted that the existing constitutional ban even prohibits the state from expanding Head Start because the centers are operated by private providers. Most other states are able to match the federal funding because their constitutions permit the practice, she said.

The public-private system would build off of existing private preschool networks, ensuring families have a choice while making early education more affordable for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay, supporters say. It would also establish consistent learning standards — and anti-discrimination regulations — that private providers would have to adopt if they contract with the state.

Zysman emphasized that the private-preschool model would make up one piece of a larger system in which options are customized to a community’s need.

“What’s going to work in urban Honolulu isn’t going to work in Kau,” she said, adding that private preschools alone can range from traditional centers to family-child interaction learning programs.

Aiona said he supports the constitutional amendment because it would create early education opportunities. He’s not convinced that a pure DOE-run program would serve the state’s needs.

“I don’t believe that it’s taking into consideration all the concerns and desires of all of the stakeholders who would be involved,” he said. “I firmly believe that a parent should have all the choices that are available to them.”

Would Private Sector Have Capacity?

The need to change the constitution emerged as an unexpected obstacle early last legislative session, when the state attorney general issued an opinion saying an amendment was needed before public funds could support private businesses, hampering Abercrombie’s original early learning proposal.

Wil Okabe, president of the HSTA, points to this hiccup as evidence that the public-private model is poorly planned. The union plans to campaign against the amendment.

“I don’t think their rationale is very sound,” Okabe said, adding that the private sector already lacks the capacity to accommodate the children the state wants to serve. “It’s easy to say but very difficult to implement … it’s just like an open check.”

“That’s a huge significant cost at a time when the state is not in a position to make any significant kind of investment in early education.” — David Ige

The amendment would enable a system that perpetuates discriminatory practices and fails to address existing disparities, Okabe said.

“Who is going to monitor this? What about the special-needs kids?” said Okabe, who supports a purely DOE-operated preschool system. “Everyone believes in preschool — it’s very important — but it is the HSTA and the teachers who are concerned about the … neediest kids. They’re not addressing that.”

Ige, the former chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he opposes the amendment because the state can’t afford a universal preschool system, whether it’s 100 percent public or a mix of public and private offerings.

“That’s a huge significant cost at a time when the state is not in a position to make any significant kind of investment in early education,” he said. The state doesn’t have enough private preschools as it is and those programs, moreover, aren’t in the communities with the greatest need, he added.

“At this point in time there should be a broader conversation about how we would want to get there prior to us making a constitutional amendment,” Ige said.

The Real Cost of Universal Preschool?

The real cost of universal preschool is difficult to ascertain, and shaky state calculations have been used to argue both for and against the amendment. One estimate suggests it would cost the state $125 million a year, but it remains to be seen how and whether the amendment — and the public-private system it could lead to — would change the price tag.

Okabe says the public-private model would end up costing taxpayers millions more than the alternatives.

“It’s a good idea, but I question where the money is going to come from.” — Mufi Hannemann

Supporters say the opposite, that a public-private system would actually save money. Zysman suggested the combination model would cost the state $40 million-$50 million a year, with parents footing the rest of the bill.

The Hawaii Educational Policy Center suggests the public-private model would cost less. In a recent policy paper it noted that a DOE preschool program would be much more costly on a per-pupil basis because teachers would be covered by collective bargaining, and state teacher salaries are roughly $20,000 more than the average salary of someone teaching at a private preschool. Moreover, a public model would require additional facilities, meaning millions of dollars more in capital bond funding, the paper says.

The disagreement has Ige and Hannemann wary of the public-private model. “We have to be very careful … crawl before we walk and walk before we run,” Hannemann said. “It’s a good idea, but I question where the money is going to come from. I’d be careful not to fully commit to something until I get a full handle on it.”


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