A legislative proposal to clarify which state entity controls the state’s public pre-kindergarten program is moving forward with little agreement on how to handle the issue.

The biggest standstill appears to stem from the inability of leaders of both sides — the Hawaii Department of Education and the state Executive Office on Early Learning — to reach some sort of resolution.

The person caught in the middle of this? Gov. David Ige. That’s evident through the words of Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who chided the governor’s legislative staff at a hearing on Friday.

“My recommendation is that the governor sit down with the players because you’re really putting the legislators between adults who should be making decisions for themselves,” she said to Ford Fuchigami, Ige’s administrative director.

“For the sake of our children, for our keiki, please work it out.”

A bill to clarify that state-funded pre-K is controlled by the Executive Office on Early Learning would keep school principals from opening new pre-K classrooms using DOE weighted student funds. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

Ige’s position on House Bill 921, which states that the early learning office should have administrative authority over most state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, is that it’s not needed.

“When I look at that measure as currently drafted, I really don’t see how it helps us move forward,” he said to Civil Beat after a monthly meeting of the Early Learning Board, the governing entity for the Executive Office on Early Learning.

“We have a statewide plan that we’re implementing. It really is about partnership, it’s about each entity taking their responsibility and really allowing us to move forward in early learning,” he added.

Ige had just addressed a room of early education advocates and Early Learning Board members at CEED Hawaii on South King Street, mainly to reinforce his optimism for the recently signed Early Childhood State Plan and the need for expanded opportunities for young children.

In a brief interview after his remarks, the governor said he could not answer whether he would veto HB 921 if it landed on his desk — saying it depends on what it looks like by that stage. But he made his views on the issue clear.

“If we are going to have public pre-K programs, it ought to be integrated into our public schools. And so, any pre-K program on a public school campus ought to be under the jurisdiction of that public school,” he said.

HB 921 has been described as clarifying the early learning office’s oversight of state-funded pre-K.

The bill is scheduled for decision making in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. From there it would go to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The bill now expressly prohibits the DOE from establishing any “general education prekindergarten classrooms for any purposes except for Title I-funded prekindergarten.” It now also states the DOE cannot use weighted student funds to open up general pre-K classrooms, essentially handing funding authority over to the early learning office.

“I think the idea was not to be so prescriptive,” said Ann Mahi, complex area superintendent for the Nanakuli-Waianae area. “I could establish (a new pre-K classroom) but not with the weighted student formula.”

Under the leadership of superintendent Christina Kishimoto, the DOE is staunchly opposed to the proposed legislation, arguing it would strip away principals’ authority from implementing and maintaining pre-K classrooms on their campuses.

The DOE asserts that since these classrooms are located on DOE campuses, oversight should ultimately rest with the DOE, essentially making it a preK-12, as opposed to K-12, system.

Kishimoto, who’s just shy of reaching the halfway mark in her tenure as superintendent under a four-year contract, has made her position clear. At Thursday’s Early Learning Board meeting, she made a motion for the board to ask the Legislature to “kill the bill” as unnecessary.

After a lengthy discussion by Early Learning Board representatives, the motion was narrowly defeated by a 4-3 vote.

Robert Peters, chairman of the board, said it was clear “we are struggling through this” given the board’s inability to reach a consensus on the legislation.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, other states such as Georgia, Massachusetts and Washington state have a separate state entity managing early childhood education, including pre-K programs.

UH President David Lassner and DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto in a light moment as Governor Ige signs the Early Learning.
Gov. David Ige, seen here signing Hawaii’s Early Childhood State Plan, a broad framework for early learning, is caught in the middle of a brewing debate over who should control state-funded pre-kindergarten. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige, meanwhile, is in the tough spot of being the bridge between the two entities that are wrestling for the lead on pre-K expansion.

The governor appointed Lauren Moriguchi, the current executive director of the early learning office and a former DOE employee, in 2015.

And while Kishimoto as superintendent is technically hired and evaluated by the Board of Education, its nine members are appointed by the governor who serve renewable three-year terms.

Ige was still a state senator at the time the Executive Office on Early Learning was established in 2012 — it was a touchstone of the administration of his predecessor, Neil Abercrombie, so his investment in the issue doesn’t run as deep.

But that hasn’t made his role brokering a compromise between these two parties any less of a challenge.

The Executive Office on Early Learning, tasked with building a high-quality early learning system in Hawaii to help its youngest residents attain future success, has so far established 26 pre-K classrooms around the state.

The existing classrooms have a potential reach of 520 4-year-olds, but need to be opened at a faster pace, the DOE argues.

According to NIEER, Hawaii ranks at the bottom of the country in terms of the proportion of 4-year-olds reached through state-funded pre-K: the program reaches only 2.1 percent of the state’s 4-year-old population, whereas the national average is around 33 percent.

The DOE is not opposed to working with the early learning office — which is not part of the DOE, just administratively attached to it — to expanding pre-K. It currently has a memorandum of agreement with the office to clarify certain roles and responsibilities when it comes to data sharing, assessments or professional development.

But the legislative attempt to codify in statute the early learning office’s administrative control over public pre-K has set off a massive effort by DOE to defeat the measure.

Underscoring these discussions is the belief that the original intent of the early learning office is being turned on its head.

“While I have no doubt the Department understands the need and aspects that go into supporting our youngest children and their families as a unit, my concern is that the priorities and concerns of the Department of Education is very different from what we envisioned about the executive office on early learning,” said former state senator Jill Tokuda, who helped lead the efforts to establish the EOEL.

“Pigeonholing (this effort) to the department will really cut us off from the need (of) where can we provide the best services all around for our young children,” she said.

As HB 921 advances, state leaders have been reminded once again of the need to work something out.

“I think we have a dilemma because we’re all after the same results,” Kidani said at Friday’s hearing, though she agreed with Mahi that the bill in its current form “won’t allow (school leaders) to do the (pre-K) pilot program they want to do.”

“I think this bill will continue to move forward until it gets in conference,” Kidani added. “I advise you guys (until then) to please (work together) diligently.”

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