Editor’s note: This editorial has been revised to clarify that the ballot measure does not enable a voucher system in which public money could go directly to parents of preschoolers in private schools.

The most hotly debated measure on the Nov. 4 ballot is also, in many ways, the most innocuous.

Question No. 4 asks voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to spend public money on private preschools. It does not propose how public money would be used nor does it even guarantee that public money will be used. It simply asks for permission so that future, hypothetical arrangements can be made possible.

Those arrangements might well involve a program whereby parents of eligible 4-year-olds would receive assistance to pay for a private preschool of their choosing (so long as it doesn’t discriminate based on race, religion, sex or ancestry). That public assistance would be distributed through the preschool rather than going directly to parents. Debate would still need to take place over how to pay for such a program and how to ensure quality, but passing the amendment takes a critical first step simply by putting all the available options for preschool education on the table.

And for the sake of Hawaii’s keiki, every option should be considered.

homeless preschool without type

A preschool student plays in a Honolulu park.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The long-term benefits of preschool education are universally acknowledged. We now know that children who attend preschool show up to kindergarten more receptive to learning. Invest in preschool education, study after study has shown, and you will see improved high school graduation rates, higher college attendance, a more productive workforce and lower crime.

Unfortunately, close to half of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds never attend preschool.

Opponents of the amendment say they are — of course — in favor of expanding preschool education, but that it should be handled by the Department of Education. Historically, teachers unions like the Hawaii State Teachers Association have a knee-jerk reaction against anything resembling a voucher program since they argue vouchers syphon money from public schools.

But the role of public money for private pre-K education is fundamentally different than K-12 education for one simple reason: public preschools, by and large, don’t exist. Ninety-six percent of the state’s existing preschools are private.

If Hawaii does not allow public funds to go to private preschools, the only way the state will be able to expand pre-K education is by establishing new facilities, hiring state teachers (who are roughly $20,000 more expensive than private educators), and developing new programs. In other words, any expansion of public preschool will take considerable time and resources.

It is important to note that passing the amendment does not preclude supporting and expanding public preschools. The two are not mutually exclusive. Even the most staunch opponents of public funding for private education — the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union — has agreed that public-private partnerships are necessary in order to expand preschool programs.

“We recognized the realities of the field,” Shyrelle Eubanks, an early education specialist for the NEA, told The New York Times. “If we were ever going to have universal prekindergarten in the United States, it was likely going to have a mixed delivery system.”

The NEA’s support of a mixed delivery system makes the Hawaii Teachers Union’s opposition that much harder to understand.

Critics of the amendment also argue that its passage would be rash or irresponsible since we don’t yet know what a public-private partnership would look like in Hawaii.

This is true. No system has been detailed yet, but that is largely because Hawaii’s constitution currently prohibits it. As a result, this past year, lawmakers were able to pass the buck on the issue. They refused to pass the enabling legislation that would detail an early childhood education program because they said it was premature.

Approve the constitutional amendment and you remove that barrier; lawmakers will be forced to evaluate and debate options, including successful models from other states.

Hawaii is, after all, the only state that prohibits public funding of private schools. Furthermore, until this year, Hawaii was just one of 10 states that didn’t have any public preschool program. We are woefully behind the rest of the country, which has already been experimenting with various models of public-private systems.

Passing the constitutional amendment is the first step in catching up.

The Executive Office on Early Learning, which supports the ballot measure, receives in-kind support from The Omidyar Group and Collaborative Leaders Network as well as grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation via the Omidyar Ohana Fund. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat and a member of the Civil Beat Editorial Board.


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