For now, it looks like the state won’t be able to tap into private providers if it wants to develop a comprehensive preschool system accessible to all of the state’s 17,500 4-year-olds.

Hawaii voters statewide have turned down a proposed amendment to the Hawaii Constitution that would have permitted the state to spend public money on private preschools. Question No. 4 — this year’s most controversial state ballot initiative — lost 52 percent to 44 percent.

But three of the four counties actually voted “yes” on the amendment. The City and County of Honolulu ended up swaying the statewide vote, with 55 percent of people voting against the measure, and 41 percent of people voting in favor of it. Oahu also has the highest concentration of existing preschool providers in the state.

Five percent of ballots statewide were left blank, and blank ballots count as “no” votes.

Voters also rejected a hike in the retirement age for judges but approved making the names of judicial nominees public and public revenue bonds for agriculture and dam projects.

5-year-old Aliiokekai Keawe-Kekoa plays with brother, 3-year-old Lucan Keawe-Kekoa while mom, Cassandra Kekoa casts her vote at Nanaikapono Elementary School located at 89-153 Mano Avenue in Waianae, Hawaii.  4 November 2014. photography by Cory Lum

5-year-old Aliiokekai Keawe-Kekoa went along with his mom, Cassandra Kekoa, to vote at Nanaikapono Elementary School

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Hawaii, where four out of 10 kids enter kindergarten without any prior education, 96 percent of preschool providers are private. The amendment would’ve allowed the state to contract with the private providers, including faith-based programs, subsidizing their tuition and theoretically making them more affordable for more families. Preschool in Hawaii costs more than $8,000 a year on average.

The ballot initiative’s failure means that, should the Legislature opt to further develop a state-funded preschool system, it would likely have to be entirely operated through the Department of Education and the existing small-scale subsidy programs earmarked for low-income families. It also means that Hawaii is still the only state to constitutionally prohibit the public funding of private preschools. Forty states already have public-private preschool systems.

“We’re disappointed, but we knew that Oahu was the gut of the vote, and we tried our best,” said Jacce Mikulanec of Good Beginnings Alliance, which spearheaded the campaign in favor of the initiative. “At the end of the day … it wasn’t quite enough, but we’re excited to get back on the horse and make sure we get more early-education support.”

“The areas where this measure would’ve helped the most, those are the areas that are underserved, more rural, more in need,” Mikulanec continued, adding that Good Beginnings Alliance won’t give up on efforts to develop a public preschool system involving private providers. “We’ll now double our efforts to work with the tools that we have.”

The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which staunchly opposes amending the constitution for preschool, said the results demonstrate that the ballot initiative was ill-conceived.

“We came a long way,” HSTA President Wil Okabe told Civil Beat, early in the evening Election Day. “We were able to generate a lot of concern with family and friends … It really comes down to values and grassroots campaigning.”

Meanwhile, voters were leaning heavily against a proposal that would amend the constitution to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges and justices from 70 to 80. The amendment lost, 73 percent to 22 percent. Five percent of ballots were left blank.

But voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment requiring the state to release the names of nominees for judges and justices. The measure won 82 percent to 11 percent, with 7 percent of ballots left blank. The results suggest that voters favor transparency over confidentiality.

And voters also approved the other two constitutional amendments on this year’s ballot:

• Amendment 2, which allows the use of special purpose revenue bonds for agricultural projects. (The Ulupono Initiative, which was cofounded by Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar, donated $500,000 to the initiative.) The amendment squeaked by, 50 percent versus 41 percent, with 9 percent of ballots left blank.

• Amendment 5, which allows the use of special purpose revenue bonds to improve dams and reservoirs, passed 63 percent to 29 percent. Eight percent of ballots were left blank.

Future of Preschool

Research suggests that a preschool education can significantly improve the chance that a child will be successful later in life — particularly if that child is poor or at-risk. The majority of a brain’s development happens before age 5.

Advocates on either side of the issue, from early-learning nonprofits to prominent business groups, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence the outcome of Question No. 4. Proponents said the amendment would offer the most cost-effective and expeditious way to open up preschool seats to more youngsters; opponents said it would benefit children of means while hurting those who are less fortunate.

All the campaigns premised their arguments on the value of early-childhood education and the need to make preschool more accessible to all families, regardless of their ability to pay.

Good Beginnings Alliance’s “Yes on 4” campaign raised nearly $1 million from organizations ranging from Kamehameha Schools to Hawaiian Electric Co. to promote the initiative through TV ads and other media efforts. The Omidyar Family Trust, which is affiliated with Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar, donated $350,000 to the “Yes on 4” campaign, too.

But it seems that key opponents — including the HSTA and its national affiliate, the National Education Association — succeeded in their media initiative arguing that the measure was ill-advised and destined to exacerbate economic inequalities. The NEA gave the HSTA’s campaign at least $275,000, according to its most recently available Campaign Spending Commission filings.

Over the election season, many voters became increasingly convinced that amending the constitution was the wrong route to expanding access to preschool.

A September Civil Beat poll found that 45 percent of voters were against the amendment, while 40 percent supported it. One month later, another Civil Beat poll suggested that the margin had widened substantially, with 50 percent opposing the amendment and 34 percent supporting it.

Many of the state’s existing preschools are faith-based and selective in admissions. Advocates of Question No. 4 insist that the amendment would preempt private providers from discriminatory practices, but opponents doubt the feasibility of that promise.

Now it appears as though the state will be limited to the other options it has in place for the more than 7,000 kids who miss out on preschool annually, and some of them are tenuous.

That includes a one-year, $3 million  program, implemented this fall, to pilot prekindergarten seats for roughly 300 low-income children at 18 DOE campuses statewide. It also includes a $6 million Department of Human Services program in which the state gives preschool subsidies to low-income families. The DHS program is serving a little more than 1,000 children this year.

What made universal preschool a particularly urgent issue this year, according to some advocates, was a change in the kindergarten cutoff age that went into effect this August. The new policy bars thousands of kids who would’ve previously been allowed to enroll in kindergarten from the public school system each year because they were born after July 31. This year, roughly 5,800 kids were blocked from kindergarten.

The DHS and DOE programs serve a small percentage of these children.

Some educators criticized the Legislature for changing the cutoff age before having an alternative, viable prekindergarten option in place.

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