A bill in the Legislature that seeks to clarify the oversight authority of a state office dedicated to early learning in Hawaii has exposed rifts at the core of a supposed working partnership between that agency and the head of the state Department of Education.

House Bill 921, which asserts that the state’s Executive Office on Early Learning has administrative authority over Hawaii’s public pre-kindergarten classrooms, has drawn sharp opposition from school superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

She has made her displeasure known in testimony, comments and a Feb. 5 letter to the chair of the Early Learning Board, the governing board for EOEL that shapes early learning policy in the state.

“All partners at the table are being treated as ‘capable’ leaders when it comes to PreK programming, while HIDOE is being represented as incapable of understanding and managing its own PreK program,” according to Kishimoto’s letter to state Early Learning Board chairman Robert Peters, a copy of which was reviewed by Civil Beat.

Executive Office of Early Learning Executive Director Lauren Moriguchi, far right, and schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, second from right,  attend a signing ceremony in January for the state’s Early Childhood State Plan. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

The underlying tension between DOE and the early learning office, which was established by the Legislature in 2012 to focus on early childhood education from birth to age 5, is playing out as Hawaii embarks on expanding the number of public pre-K classrooms in public schools from its current 26 to more than 300 within 10 years.

The split touches on who should be in charge of the pre-K buildout, how much consideration is being given to each other’s expertise and above all, the pace of the rollout of new public pre-K classrooms.

“The DOE is not being treated as a policy and program partner at the table,” Kishimoto told Civil Beat on Tuesday. “When a bill comes up without engaging us about our pre-Ks in our schools, I am going to have something to say about that. Because once again, I am seeing the DOE is being treated as if we are on the fringe of ed policy instead of at the core and heart of public education policy.”

HB 921 is one in a series of bills over the last several years that have sought to clarify the early learning office’s role — and it’s not the only one that has been met with DOE resistance.

Last year, in what was Kishimoto’s first legislative season since assuming her role in August 2017, she said she objected to a proposal that removed preschool, with limited exceptions, from DOE’s purview. The measure was eventually signed by Gov. David Ige after briefly appearing on his intent to veto list.

Too Few Public Pre-K Programs

Established during the Gov. Neil Abercrombie administration, the Executive Office on Early Learning is responsible for establishing a “high-quality” learning framework for pre-K students in Hawaii’s public schools.

For the early learning office, that means training pre-K teachers, providing mentoring and professional development and administering and distributing funds to schools that express a desire to adopt a pre-K program.

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto after early learning signing at the Gov’s office.
Superintendent Christina Kishimoto wants her agency to have more say in expansion plans for the state’s pre-K program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The existing 26 pre-K classrooms, with a current total capacity of 520 4-year-olds — are known as “EOEL pre-K classrooms.”  Those are separate from federally funded Head Start public preschool programs or those exclusively administrated by the DOE for special education or Title I-funded students.

Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of public preschool participation in the country while having some of the most expensive private preschool costs. An estimated 42 percent of the state’s kindergarteners in the 2012-13 school year had not gone through any kind of preschool, known to be a crucial first step in laying the groundwork for academic and social success down the road.

The early learning office is seeking $2 million in funding for 22 additional pre-K classrooms on DOE campuses, primarily to fund a teacher and educational assistant in each class.

Hawaii’s educational leaders face pressure from community leaders to rapidly increase access to public pre-kindergarten. DOE wants to create the new classrooms at a faster pace than the early learning office.

Hawaii currently has one of the lowest rates of children attending public preschool programs. Pictured here are preschoolers playing at Linapuni Elementary in Kalihi. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

The answer about how fast to expand is not so clear, says EOEL Executive Director Lauren Moriguchi. She has explained in legislative hearings that a high-quality pre-K classroom requires careful training, observation and professional development of teachers given the unique learning needs of kids at that age.

HB 921, which passed the House and will now be considered by the Senate, has landed squarely in the midst of these pedagogical concerns, pitting the superintendent and her complex area superintendents against the early learning office and its supporters. Those supporters include early childhood education advocates, parents and some principals.

“It’s working just fine as it is, why do you need to throw a wrench in it?” said Nancy Jadallah, who retired as principal of Hookena Elementary on Big Island last year. “From a financial standpoint, what (Moriguchi) does is, she gives us a teacher, a contract EA (educational assistant) and gives them either $5,000 or $7,000 to buy supplies.”

Current Bill ‘Maintains The Status Quo’

The current bill, according to its sponsor Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Lower and Higher Education Committee, clarifies that the early learning office has administrative authority over all state-funded pre-K programs, except those currently administered by DOE.

It does not delineate any new responsibilities to the early learning office or curtail any existing DOE authority over certain public pre-K programs, Woodson said.

“It’s unfortunate that certain individuals are saying it takes away authority from principals or complex area superintendents,” he said. “The proposal does not do that in any way, shape or form. It’s attempting to maintain the status quo as it relates to the operations of public early learning in the state of Hawaii.”

Rep Justin Woodson Chair House Education during DOE meeting held at the Capitol Auditorium.
Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Lower and Higher Eduction Committee, says his bill doesn’t take any current authority away from DOE. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Absent the bill’s clarifying language, “I do get scared that our youngest children won’t be cared for and educated in the way they should be,” said Kathy Murphy, executive director of the Hawaii Association for the Education of Young Children. “The DOE hasn’t been in the business of young children.”

But according to Kishimoto, the DOE has been “ignored” in discussions among the EOEL and Early Learning Board.

(Clarification: Although other partners at the table include Head Start and Kamehameha Schools, the superintendent said she was not referring to those parties.)

In her letter to Peters, Kishimoto charged the DOE was “left off a list of acknowledgements as meaningful contributors” to a federal preschool development grant initiative and that the DOE’s interests “are not being represented or supported by this influential board.”

“We have asked specific questions about, how can we be a powerful partner with EOEL to move this agenda?” she said to Civil Beat. “And every step of the way for the last six to eight months I have been deferred multiple times with no response to ideas I’ve put at the table.

“We will not be a silent partner at the table,” she added. “We are a well-resourced organization that should be a major partner at the table to make this happen. We are the ones who hear directly from the parents about when are you going to open up more pre-Ks?”

Contact Key Lawmakers

Multiple principals and complex area superintendents, who oversee large geographic areas comprised of neighboring high schools and their feeder elementary and middle schools, made a rare appearance at a Feb. 21 House Finance hearing to oppose the bill.

“I’ve never seen a hearing where six (complex area superintendents) show up,” said Rep. Roy Takumi, the former longtime House education committee chair.

The state’s 14 complex area superintendents sent their own signed letter to ELB Chair Peters on Feb. 11, in which they wrote they were “troubled by (ELB and EOEL’s) accusations that we are not capable administrators and should not retain authority over PreK classrooms on our campuses.” They contended they’re being “criticized for supposedly lacking subject-matter expertise in this area.”

Takumi said public pre-K programming was an area the two previous superintendents — Pat Hamamoto and Kathryn Matayoshi — were happy to leave in the early learning office’s hands, given the gargantuan task of managing the K-12 system.

“For reasons unknown to me, the (current) superintendent decided this was an area that she wanted to get more active in,” he said. “Theoretically, it’s a great thing when the superintendent of public education and the governor want to get more involved in early learning in our state.”

“If the superintendent and (DOE) wants to take hold of the early learning program, they are free to try and do so but what that would require is a bill to repeal the Executive Office on Early Learning,” Takumi added. “Absent that, the law is still the law. It’s very clear we have charged the EOEL with early learning in the state of Hawaii.”

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