A bill to establish a statewide pre-kindergarten program passed through the Senate Committee on Education on Friday afternoon.

Senate Bill 844 would set up a program to establish pre-K offerings at public and charter schools that would be administered by the Executive Office on Early Learning.

Right now, there is $3 million dollars in the budget for the program, but lawmakers plan to ask for another $30 million.

Lawmakers say pre-K programs are a longterm investment. According to a 2008 study by the Good Beginnings Alliance, returns are at least $4 for every dollar invested in high-quality early education.

Supporters say such a program would give children a better chance to graduate from high school and move on to college. The bill would give parents the opportunity to voluntarily enroll their children in a early education programs at public and charter schools across the state. The pre-K program would give priority to low-income or at-risk children, and could be taught in either of the state’s official languages.

homeless preschool without type

A preschool student plays in a Honolulu park.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

According to a 2013 report by ChildCare Aware of America, preschool can cost a family up to $8,172 a year – that’s more than 10 percent of Hawaii’s median household income.

“Education can provide a leveling of socio-economic impacts experienced by children from low-income families,” Scott Morishige, executive director of PHOCUSED, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the disadvantaged, said in written testimony. “These families are dealing with the challenges of Hawaii’s high cost of living realities and are focused on providing the necessities, like food and housing.”

Of kindergarteners enrolled in public school during the 2012-2013 school year, 43 percent hadn’t attended preschool, according to the Hawaii State School Readiness Assessment for the 2012- 2013 school year.

And one in six children in Hawaii lives in poverty, according to a 2013 report by the University of Hawaii Center on the Family. These children will have priority for acceptance into the program.

“This number is alarming because an impoverished childhood leads to a greater risk of teen pregnancy, failure to graduate from high school, poor health, and lack of secure employment in later years,” the bill states.

Providing pre-K educational opportunities increases children’s readiness to learn by the time they reach kindergarten, the bill states, adding that children are much more likely to drop out of high school if they aren’t reading proficiently by third grade.

Over time, pre-K education could reduce welfare, crime and special education costs, the bills states. Other benefits could include reduced homelessness and substance abuse, and increased tax revenues.

In 2014, the Executive Office on Early Learning started its first prekindergarten program. Act 122, which was passed in 2014, provided $3 million to start the program. It was was launched in 18 public schools in the 2014-2015 school year, and served more than 400 children.

“SB 844 is the first step to provide parents with more access to these essential programs and also has the potential to alleviate financial burdens associated with early childhood education costs,” Aloha United Way CEO Cindy Adams said in written testimony.

Currently, low-income families can apply for subsidized child care through the Preschool Open Doors program. The program helps approximately 1,300 low-income or at-risk 4- and 5-year-olds who are too young to enter kindergarten. The POD program has a $7.6 million budget for the 2015 state fiscal year.

Back in 2012, lawmakers passed Act 178 requiring that children must turn 5 by July 31 to start kindergarten that year. That left more than 5,000 late-born 4-year-olds no longer eligible to attend kindergarten, which meant another year without reduced-price breakfast and lunch, all-day school and the after-school A-Plus program.

In 2013, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1084, which asked voters to amend the state constitution to give allow public funds to go to private pre-K programs. The ballot question didn’t allocate public funds to private schools; it solely asked for permission to be able to do so.

Had the ballot question passed, it could have allowed a program that might have given assistance to parents to use for the private preschool of their choosing. However, the bill was rejected at the ballot box last November.

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