Sen. Brian Schatz is publicly supporting the campaign to pass a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to use public funds to pay for private preschool programs.

The Good Beginning Alliance campaign — “Yes on 4” — already has the support of a range of business groups, private preschool providers and Native Hawaiian advocacy organizations. It’s been raising and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Advocates say the passage of Question No. 4 is key to expanding access to preschool for more of the state’s 4-year-olds. They say it would allow the state to contract with private providers and subsidize tuition, making preschool more affordable for low- and middle-income families.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz at Civil Beat editorial board

Sen. Brian Schatz

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Each year Hawaii is home to some 17,500 4-year-olds, about 40 percent of which are not enrolled in preschool. A quality early education is said to be a key building block in a child’s life.

“I’m supporting the amendment because all parents should be able to send their kids to preschool,” Schatz said in a statement. “Every kid deserves a fair shot and it’s clear that early learning is essential for future success.”

“A yes vote is about helping four-year-olds get prepared for kindergarten,” Schatz continued. “Kids are four years old only once and we have an obligation to do everything in our power to give them the best possible chance at succeeding.”

Hawaii is the only state to prohibit public funding of private preschools.

But opponents, including the Hawaii State Teachers Association, say the constitutional amendment would lead to more inequality and a system that amounts to a voucher program. Critics also question the allocation of public dollars to faith-based preschools. (The amendment includes a non-discrimination provision.)

“The strength of our public education system depends in part on kids getting the early learning they need to excel – passing this amendment brings more options to Hawaii to make sure that happens,” Schatz said. “Some opponents are calling this a move toward vouchers, which I wouldn’t support. The truth, however, is that amendment four is not a voucher system. It’s simply giving the state more options to level the playing field for our neediest children.”

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