Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to influence the outcome of Question No. 4 — the ballot initiative that proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the public funding of private preschools.

But the bulk of that money is coming from just a few prominent organizations and corporations, according to reports recently filed with the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission.

For the Future of Our Keiki, a newly formed ad-hoc political committee that’s connected to the Hawaii State Teachers Association and opposes the ballot initiative, reports just one donor: the union’s national affiliate, the National Education Association. (The HSTA had already spent an additional $142,000 on a separate campaign earlier in the election season but had to terminate the ad because of a technicality in campaign spending regulations.)

preschool ballot commercials composite

For the Future of Our Keiki wants you to vote “no” on Question No. 4, while Good Beginnings Alliance wants you to vote “yes.”

For the Future of Our Keiki/Good Beginnings Alliance

The NEA on Oct. 16 gave For the Future of Our Keiki $275,000, nearly half of which had been spent on radio and TV ad buys as of Oct. 20. The commercials argue that the constitutional amendment leaves too many unanswered questions.

Meanwhile, Good Beginnings Alliance’s massive campaign in support of the amendment had as of Oct. 20 raised about $887,000 — virtually all of which has come from big-money organizations such as Kamehameha Schools, First Insurance Co., Hawaiian Electric and the Omidyar Family Trust. (The trust is affiliated with Civil Beat founder and publisher Pierre Omidyar.)

Good Beginnings Alliance spent roughly three-fourths of that money on media and other public relations expenditures, much of it on TV ads. The ads argue that the amendment is a “Yes Brainer.”

The amendment would allow the state to allocate public funds to private preschool programs, a practice Hawaii’s Constitution currently prohibits. In Hawaii, which is the only state to constitutionally prohibit the practice, 96 percent of existing preschools are private.

It would allow the state to contract with private providers and subsidize their operations with public dollars, theoretically making attendance more affordable for families with less means. It’s a key component of the public-private model envisioned by outgoing Gov. Neil Abercrombie: a “mixed-delivery” system in which the state funds some Department of Education pre-kindergarten classrooms, provides child-care vouchers for certain low-income families and, should the amendment pass, subsidizes private private preschool for the remaining 4-year-olds.

There are about 17,500 4-year-olds in the state in any given year, about 7,000 of whom don’t attend preschool. Preschool in Hawaii costs about $8,000 a year on average. 

Lawmakers last session set aside $6 million to fund additional preschool subsidies this year for the low-income, late-born children who were barred from kindergarten because of a change to the cutoff age. And this year the state has $3 million to pilot a pre-kindergarten program at 18 public schools serving about 300 low-income children.

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

But Civil Beat’s newest poll suggests that Hawaii voters don’t buy the argument that the constitutional amendment is the best way to further expanding preschool opportunities in the state. Just 34 percent of voters who participated in the poll said they’re voting “yes” on the ballot question, while 50 percent said they’re voting “no.” Nine percent of respondents said they’re unsure.

The Ads

The Good Beginnings Alliance campaign aims to convince voters that the measure is key to enhancing access to early education in a state where nearly half of all kids miss out on quality pre-kindergarten schooling.

It’s focused its media campaign on raising awareness about the value of early education. Each of the alliance’s four 30-second commercials — including one featuring former Kamehameha Schools CEO Dee Jay Mailer and one featuring Chamber of Commerce Hawaii CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara — include the same key points:

  • That the vast majority of the brain develops before age 5 (which it does
  • That kids who attend preschool do better than those who don’t  (which, research suggests, is generally true) 
  • That nearly half of Hawaii’s children can’t attend preschool (statewide, about 42 percent of children enter kindergarten having never attended preschool)
  • That the constitutional amendment would create more preschool opportunities for those who can’t afford it otherwise  

For the Future of Our Keiki’s 30-second commercial, on the other hand, attacks the feasibility of that last promise, stressing there’s no guarantee that the amendment will lead to better access. The ad asks three questions:

  • How will it work?
  • How will it be funded?
  • How much will it cost?

“Until there are clear answers to basic questions that ensure fairness and accessibility to preschool for all keiki, vote ‘no’ on public funds for private preschools, ” the narrator says.

A Murky Future

But Good Beginnings Alliance says the uncertainty surrounding the preschool system’s preschool is exactly why voters should give the constitutional amendment a chance.

“Right now the responsibility of preschool falls on families or philanthropy,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance, the children’s advocacy organization that has spearheaded the “Yes on 4” initiative. “The state doesn’t have any skin in the game.”

“We have a two-tiered system right now,” she continued. “A vote no is a vote to perpetuate that system.”

yes on 4 preschool commercial

One of the ‘Yes on 4’ commercials, titled “Teacher.”

Good Beginnings Alliance — Children's Action Network

The amendment would only create a mechanism that would allow the Legislature to set up a public-private preschool system — not the system itself. That’s up to the Legislature. 

“There’s no guarantee,” Zysman said. “In being truthful (the amendment) gets punted back to Legislature and the incoming administration. But if there’s a no vote, there’s absolutely no change, no discussion to be had.”

Still, the murkiness surrounding the would-be system has many people questioning whether the measure. 

“There are concerns about what the private sector will or will not do,” said Gale Flynn, who formerly served as director of preschool efforts for Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education and doesn’t have a position on the amendment. “The private sector caters to the people who can afford to pay. It’s a business — you cater to your market that’s going to be able to cover your costs.”

Flynn said the state would have to make a concerted effort to ensure equal access, proper training for preschool providers unaccustomed to serving lower-income and special-needs populations, and consistent monitoring of quality and compliance.

“The state can’t just go and get a contract out there,” Flynn said. “If it doesn’t put in the additional resources to ensure equal access — that’s my biggest concern.”

The Private Sector and Public Education

Some educators fear the amendment is a bandaid solution that won’t solve the state’s greatest struggles with early education.

“It it passes it gives the perception that we have a system in place, and it gives the perception that the system is going to be founded on privatization,” said Lyla Berg, a former state representative who served as vice chairwoman of the Education Committee and helped shepherd early education legislation in 2009 that aimed to build on existing public school services. “It’s not bringing our state into positive motion. We’re just moving chairs around.”

There are also questions about access for special-needs children. 

If the amendment were passed, the state could contract with private preschools as long as those preschools don’t discriminate based on race, religion, sex or ancestry. The amendment, however, doesn’t specify whether those preschools would be allowed to discriminate against special-needs students.

The vast majority of special-needs preschoolers in Hawaii currently attend public DOE programs rather than private ones, according to Flynn. 

“Private providers may find some excuse as to why they can’t provide the special education services,” Flynn said. “It’s much more difficult to monitor that.”

No on 4 preschool children

For the Future of Our Keiki’s “No Brainer” commercial.

For the Future of Our Keiki

Flynn also said she’s concerned that the curricula taught by faith-based preschools could have “religious overtones.” She said the state would need to closely monitor the private sector to ensure providers abide by the contract provisions.

And it’s unclear whether less-conventional preschool providers, such as family-child interaction programs in which family members go to class with their children, would be allowed to participate in the state program. These programs tend to serve at-risk populations, Native Hawaiians and the homeless

The supplementary budget bill passed by the 2014 Legislature included $3 million to pilot the small-scale prekindergarten program on DOE campuses. But the legislation explicitly banned that money from being used for family-child interaction programs — an indication that lawmakers would be disinclined from including such programs in a mixed-delivery system. 

Danny Goya, who runs Ka Paalana, a family-child interaction learning program geared for homeless families, said he hopes the Legislature would include such programs should the amendment pass. 

“But it’s bigger than us,” said Goya, who supports the amendment even if it’s designed to accommodate center-based preschools. “It’s more than just about FCILs — it’s about the general need for high-quality early education for our 4-year-olds.”

“The goal really was to provide accessibility to quality early learning programs and the target audience was to be those with a certain income who would generally not be able to go into preschool.”

Kanoe Naone, executive director of INPEACE, which also provides family-interaction programs, agreed with Goya.

“Kids are getting services, and that’s what we care about — just trying to meet the needs of the community,” she said, adding that she initially doubted the need for a constitutional amendment in the first place because some early education providers already do get state funding. “At this point, it basically means that we have to have a ConAm to ever have an opportunity to expand access.”

Naone also said she thinks there’s a great misperception in the community that the amendment would open up funding for private, for-profit preschools. While the vast majority of preschools in Hawaii are private, all but one are nonprofit, she said.

“A lot of people don’t understand what (the amendment) is and don’t have the time to delve deeply into what it actually means,” Naone said. “Then, if you look at that tendency, the easiest thing to do is not to do anything, just not vote on it.”

The Real Cost

Opponents of the amendment doubt that the mixed-delivery system would truly cut costs for the neediest of children, while proponents stress how much more cost-effective a public-private model would be.

Existing preschools in the state vary greatly in quality and cost. Corey Rosenlee, a teacher at Campbell High School who’s running to replace Wil Okabe as HSTA president, says that even with the public subsidies the most expensive, high-quality preschools would still be cost-prohibitive to lower-income children because of how pricey they are. Some preschools in Hawaii cost as much as $15,000 a year, he said. 

But others point out that private preschools already have the facilities, eliminating the time and money that would have to go into setting up a public program. Good Beginnings Alliance says a public-private preschool system would cost the state $50 million a year and that a program run entirely by the DOE could cost more than $125 million a year.

The numbers, however, are hard to vet without anything concrete in place.

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