Gov. David Ige’s ambitious proposal to expand Hawaii’s statewide public preschool system unveiled in his recent State of the State address turns on the idea of restructuring some K-6 elementary schools.

By moving sixth-graders into middle schools to make way for pre-K classrooms, the governor said, the state could “kick-start this effort, initially in communities where they are most needed.”

Ultimately, the state needs more than 300 public pre-K classrooms, he said.

“Let’s be smart about how we utilize those facilities,” he told Hawaii Public Radio on Tuesday during a “Talk Story” segment. “We want to be able to add pre-K programs in each and every one of our elementary schools and what is the best way to do that? Let’s look at changing it to pre-K to 5 and realigning the middle school so we can get classrooms, early education classrooms, as quickly throughout the system at the most reasonable cost.”

But that expansion must be balanced with careful attention to building a “high quality” early learning system, education advocates say.

Hawaii lags the nation when it comes to accessibility of public pre-K. Studies indicate preschool is a crucial step before kids enter kindergarten, given that 85 to 90 percent of brain development takes place before age 5. And private preschools are expensive here — up to $1,000 per month.

In this 2017 photo, pre-K teacher Cherie Yamashiroya, right, and teacher’s aide Yukie Esah shown with Head Start preschoolers at Linapuni Elementary. The federally funded Head Start reaches about 12 percent of Hawaii 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool of any kind. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

Ige’s grade-restructuring proposal seeks to address one of the most challenging — and costliest — aspects of expanding Hawaii’s relatively new public pre-K program, which launched in 2014 through the Executive Office on Early Learning with the opening of 20 classrooms in 18 public schools at an annual cost of $3 million.

The yearly cost of operating one pre-K classroom is $134,000 — including instructional salaries and classroom expenses — while the cost of building one new pre-K classroom that meets child safety criteria is $1.5 million.

Of the roughly 18,500 Hawaii 4-year-olds in 2017-18, only up to 2.8 percent are reached through the state’s public pre-K program. Hawaii hopes to boost that share to 36 percent by 2026-27.

On Wednesday, the governor held a signing ceremony with various stakeholders to recognize the “Early Childhood State Plan” for 2019-2024 for the well-being of children from birth through age 8. The plan is a framework to signify the state’s commitment to early learning with coordination among various branches of state government, but doesn’t offer specifics in terms of funding or classroom numbers.

Universal preschool is being embraced by many mainland school districts and is a major policy initiative nationally. Preschool helps increase student achievement outcomes down the road, lowering drop-out rates and suspensions and improving social and emotional learning, research shows.

300 Classrooms Within 10 Years

Currently, there are 26 pre-K classrooms operating in 24 DOE schools serving up to 520 4-year-olds. About half are on the Big Island, with most of the rest on Oahu. Far more preschoolers — about 8,300 — are served by private providers. The federally funded Head Start program serves 2,200 preschoolers, and 360 others are served through a public charter school pre-K grant.

Not all of the 26 existing public pre-K classrooms are at full capacity, said Lauren Moriguchi, executive director of EOEL, citing the newness of the program.

“Principals were scrambling to put teachers in classrooms,” she said. “I don’t think they had the understanding of what to look for when hiring an early education teacher. Many principals expressed that to us after the fact.”

The governor’s Jan. 22 State of the State remarks injected some urgency into the state’s long-range pre-K expansion that was met with caution, even reluctance, by some lawmakers concerned about the potential cost.

“I think the Legislature is going to have to look closer at this as we look at the resources we have to work with,” Sen. Michelle Kidani, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, wrote in an email to Civil Beat.

The proposal to expand from 26 to 300 pre-K classrooms in 10 years is actually part of a working paper developed between the DOE, EOEL, State Public Charter School Commission and Kamehameha Schools. For the state to eventually reach that number would require $51 million in annual preschool operating costs, and about $125 million for new facilities.

Moriguchi acknowledges the long-range goal is “ambitious.”

“The (early childhood) state plan is a mechanism to bring all of the partners together so we can be on board, looking at how we can leverage funding and resources and coordinate services,” she said Wednesday. “(The governor) is asking us to come up with a four-year plan that will take place during his term.”

Who’s In Charge?

Renewed attention to universal pre-K in Hawaii has put into sharper focus the relationship between the DOE, which oversees the state’s entire K-12 network of 256 public schools, and the EOEL, an agency established in 2012 to oversee the early childcare system from the prenatal stage through kindergarten entry. EOEL is funded through the state Department of Education but is a separate entity.

The inherent tension between DOE and EOEL lies in who should be administering the pre-K programs and how decisions are made on where to introduce new pre-K classrooms.

The leaders of those systems — DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and EOEL’s Moriguchi — say the public pre-K expansion has always been a collaborative effort, but the tenor of questions they’ve been peppered with by lawmakers at the Capitol lately doesn’t exactly suggest a seamless partnership.

“My confusion is that the authority to plot the course for early education lies with the EOEL and not the DOE,” Kidani said to Moriguchi during a DOE budget briefing to the Senate Ways and Means and Education committees earlier this month. “I don’t see the need for an EOEL if you’re leaving all the decisions up to the DOE. We’re duplicating services and duplicating expenses.”

Laurent Moriguchi Director Executive Office on Early Learning with Governor David Ige, DOH Director Bruce Anderson, Dept of Human Services Pankaj Bhanot and UH president David Lassner and DOE Superintendent Kishimoto.
Lauren Moriguchi, front, director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, attended the ceremonial signing of the “Early Childhood State Plan” on Wednesday with, from left, University of Hawaii President David Lassner, school Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Gov. David Ige. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Other lawmakers seemed frustrated by the pace of the rollout of new classrooms. Sen. Kurt Fevella said at the same briefing that his Ewa district lacks public pre-K classrooms and expressed irritation when Moriguchi said there must be principal buy-in to establish a pre-K classroom at any given school.

“We have you guys here collecting the money, and you give it to DOE, and DOE goes to select (the school). If the principal opts in or opts out, I don’t think that’s fair, but I think every single elementary school should be on this list,” Fevella said, holding up a list of DOE schools with pre-K classrooms.

The DOE is in charge of the K-12 public school system, including facilities, classroom renovations, principals, teachers, assessments and standards. The EOEL is tasked with ensuring the public pre-K program is not just expanding but also “high-quality,” meaning teachers are equipped with the right training and know what they’re doing.

Otherwise, Moriguchi said, “the programs can actually be harmful to students.”

“DOE has been a K-12 system for quite some time,” she told lawmakers at the briefing. “Early learning is a really specialized field and while there are plans down the road in the long run to incorporate preschool into the DOE system, there has to be that infrastructure that’s going to be built up.”

A “high quality early childhood” setting has certain facilities needs, such as small child-sized sinks and toilets, a fenced-in play area and access to a bathroom either inside or near the classroom, plus a need for a highly trained staff, she said.

In an interview this week, Kishimoto expressed support for the governor’s proposal to restructure existing K-6 schools. Hawaii has 167 elementary schools, and 82 are currently K-6, with many located on the neighbor islands. The state wants to expand pre-K to those more rural areas, which have more underserved populations.

School complex areas will begin to develop their plans for restructuring “this semester,” Kishimoto said, while actual movement of grade levels wouldn’t begin for at least another two to three years, that is if funding comes through.

“For each complex, it will be based on whether they need to change the grade configuration (to accommodate pre-K classrooms), so it’s not a given, and each of the complexes are going to develop their plan,” she said.

The DOE has drafted its own one-page brief regarding pre-K expansion, and has asked the Legislature this session for $14.3 million in capital improvement funds to retrofit 22-27 classrooms statewide.

Clarified Roles

At a recent House Lower and Higher Education Committee briefing on state pre-K, the school superintendent and EOEL director were asked to clarify who controls what when it comes to the pre-K plan.

“It’s a partnership because those (pre-K) classes are in schools that I supervise. Those schools report to principals that I supervise,” Kishimoto told members of the committee. “The accountability for the safety of those children … and quality… ultimately I will be asked to look at those measures.”

“One entity needs to lead those developments,” advised Rep. Justin Woodson, the committee chair. He has introduced House Bill 921 that proposes direct control by EOEL over the administration of public pre-K programs, except special education and Title I funded programs, to clarify its authority.

The proposed House budget bill calls for $8.2 million in funding for Early Learning over the next biennium — from 2019 to 2021.

The EOEL has asked the Legislature to supply an additional $2 million in funding for an additional 22 pre-K classrooms in existing DOE facilities. (Last year, the EOEL requested legislative funding for 10 new classrooms and received funding for five.) On top of that, the EOEL seeks two additional support staff positions.

EOEL falls into the “Early Learning” bucket of the DOE’s budget, and currently has a $3.8 million operating budget. That’s less than 1 percent of the department’s total $1.9 billion budget.

The public pre-K instructors currently in DOE schools are not all trained in this area — just 22 percent hold an early education degree and more than two-thirds of the teachers in these classrooms have not taken coursework in early education, according to Moriguchi.

Through her office, she wants to require pre-K instructors to have more training, including 30 to 36 credits of early childhood coursework for teachers and at least nine credits for educational assistants.

“We offer an early learning induction program in the year prior to schools opening a classroom and continued support through the Early Learning Academy,” she said.

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