When legislators worked out a last-minute agreement on Friday that might maintain current funding levels for Preschool Open Doors, it ended months of suspense for low-income parents and early childhood education advocates.

The negotiations to find $6 million for the program — which helps low-income families pay for preschool — came near the end of a legislative session that saw little action on early childhood education.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s push to expand access to early childhood ed largely collapsed in November with voter rejection of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to spend public funds on private preschools.

homeless preschool without type

A preschool student plays in a Honolulu park.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

What Gov. David Ige’s priorities are for early childhood education moving forward will likely be part of upcoming larger discussions between the administration and cabinet, said Laurel Johnston, Gov. Ige’s deputy chief of staff.

“I think (Gov. Ige) wants to look at it more broadly,” Johnston said.

In the meantime, his office is still working to find a new leader for the Executive Office on Early Learning,  formed under Abercrombie to lead the charge on expanding learning opportunities. The office has been without an executive director and most of its staff since December.

The governor’s office has been interviewing candidates to head the office, but suffered a setback earlier this week when a candidate turned down the job because they weren’t ready to leave their current position, Johnston said.

A strong director in that office — which will soon transition from being attached to the governor’s office to the Department of Education — can help set direction for the state and look for external funding to expand care options, said GG Weisenfeld, who held the position until December.

“Given the fiscal constraints we are facing, this is indeed great news for over a thousand families who directly benefit from this program.” — Rep. Roy Takumi, chair of House Education Committee

Despite the failure of the constitutional amendment, the state did make good strides last year, Weisenfeld said.

This school year Hawaii launched its first state-funded pre-kindergarten program in 20 schools, Weisenfeld said. Hawaii also won a $14 million federal grant to establish pre-kindergarten classes in charter schools.

“I think things are still happening, but it’s less public,”  Weisenfeld said.

And of course, there was the expansion of Preschool Open Door. The program, which in prior years had enough funding to pay preschool subsidies for around 350 low-income families, received an additional $6 million in the current fiscal year. That bump meant the program could extend aid to this year to the the parents of nearly 1,000 more children than in previous years.

For many, the funds helped bridge a child-care gap created when the new age limits for junior kindergarten went into effect this year.

Children must be 5 years old to enter kindergarten. In prior years, the age cutoff was for children turning 5 on Dec. 1 of the school year — meaning that children were actually able to start kindergarten at 4 years and seven months of age. The new cutoff of July 1 impacted around 4,000 children in the state.

A 2013 report by ChildCare Aware of America estimates that parents in Hawaii spend about $8,000 a year on preschool per child. Meanwhile, most of the families who received POD subsidies make about $33,000 a year, according the Good Beginnings Alliance, a nonprofit organization.

Ige’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year maintained base funding for POD, but did not continue the additional $6 million it received this year — something many early childhood education advocates argued was critical given the failure of the constitutional amendment and the new kindergarten age limits.

The $6 million in the current fiscal year was a temporary, one-year appropriation, pending the outcome of the constitutional amendment, Johnston points out.

“Because the constitutional amendment did not pass, I think the Legislature  has been struggling to regroup to figure out if they should continue the $6 million  for (another)  year until they figure out a broader policy on preschool going forward,” Johnston said.

The new agreement on POD funding hammered out in Friday’s conference session to continue the the $6 million in extra funding — which must still be approved by the full legislature later next week — is also good for only one year.

“Of course, this means we will need to work next session to ensure that this level of funding continues for more than just this year,” Rep. Roy Takumi, who chairs the House Committee on Education, said in an email Friday.  “But given the fiscal constraints we are facing, this is indeed great news for over a thousand families who directly benefit from this program.”

Disclosure: The Omidyar Family Trust donated at least $350,000 to the Good Beginnings Alliance campaign in support of Question No. 4, the preschool funding measure on the November 2014 ballot. The trust is affiliated with Civil Beat founder and publisher Pierre Omidyar. Additionally, the Executive Office on Early Learning receives in-kind support from The Omidyar Group and Collaborative Leaders Network, as well as grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation via the Omidyar Ohana Fund.

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