Lawmakers and officials in the education community agree — universal preschool is something that Hawaii needs as soon as possible.

Educators and several legislators discussed the future of preschool in Hawaii during a meeting at the Capitol on Friday afternoon. About two dozen audience members, almost all female, were given the opportunity to question the lawmakers and education officials about the programs.

Rep. Roy Takumi, chair of the House Committee on Education, joked that he should hold an event on high school sports to increase male attendance.

Kathryn Matayoshi, superintendent of the State of Hawaii Department of Education; Tom Hutton, executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission; and GG Weisenfeld, former director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, discussed the implementation of a federal early education grant and the future of the Executive Office on Early Learning.

“I think it’s really important that early learning is on the table and still being discussed,” Weisenfeld said.

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A preschool student plays in a Honolulu park.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Currently, most positions within the Executive Office on Early Learning are vacant, including the director’s post, Weisenfeld said. The program will become an attached agency of the Department of Education starting July 1. Once the program becomes part of the DOE, it will need many more positions, like data analysts, Weisenfeld said.

“The DOE has been taking on the lead right now,” she said.

The DOE will  oversee the Executive Office on Early Learning’ prekindergarten program, which was started in 18 public schools in the 2014-2015 school year, and served more than 400 children.

The group also discussed the future of pre-K programs at charter schools. Last December, the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission received a $14.8 million multi-year federal grant to develop preschool programs across the state. The Preschool Development Grant was provided through the Obama administration’s Preschool for All initiative.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without a universal preschool program, and one of 15 states with small or no state-funded pre-K programs that are eligible to apply for the grant.

The money will be spent over a four-year period, with $2 million spent the first year to establish four preschool classrooms at four charter schools on the Big Island, according to the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission. The rest will be used to create 18 preschool programs, which are expected to serve 920 children over the course of the grant.

“Those preschools there on the island of Hawaii are sorely needed,” Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, said.

The first two years of the grant will go to establishing six pre-K classrooms on the Big Island. Of the four classes being introduced this year, two are Hawaiian immersion programs. Those programs gave Hawaii a competitive edge for receiving the grant, said Tom Hutton, executive director of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without a universal preschool program.

But the grant ends in four years, which means the state will have to find a way to continue to fund the programs, he said.

Lawmakers have introduced a couple of measures this session that could give parents better access to early education for their children. Right now, low-income families can apply for government subsidies through the Preschool Open Doors program or enroll their children in the EOEL’s pre-K program, but all other parents must pay out of pocket for preschool.

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.

Senate Bill 844 would create a public preschool program across the state that would be administered by the Executive Office of Early Learning. The bill has crossed over to the House, and would give parents the choice to enroll their children into pre-K programs at public and charter schools across the state.

Under SB 844, low-income students would be given priority to admission. The pre-K programs would be taught in either of the state’s official languages, and would focus on positive teacher-child interactions, childhood development and family engagement.

Another measure would reallocate funding for Preschool Open Doors that was inadvertently left out of Gov. David Ige’s budget proposal. If Senate Bill 64 doesn’t pass, it could leave parents of 1,300 low-income or at-risk 4-year-olds without a means to pay for preschool.

Families who qualified for the POD program received an average of $544 per month in 2014. The average income for Hawaii families who qualify for the POD program is $33,000 a year, according to the Good Beginnings Alliance.

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

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