On Jan. 24, several hundred children, parents and friends gathered at the State Capitol to rally for early education funding. It was encouraging to see the organizations comprising ‘Eleu, the Hawaiian early education association, gather to petition our policymakers to make the preparation of young children and families a significant priority of our government.

NOTE: pick the correct link

The theme we’re using more frequently is an adaptation of the powerful greeting, “And how are the children?” Used by the Maasai people from parts of Kenya and Tanzania, the phrase proclaims the community’s priorities and reminds the speakers of their responsibility. In Hawaiian, it is “Maikaʻi anei nā keiki?” or “Are the children well?” It is a question we should be continually asking ourselves.

Experts tell us that the vast majority of cognitive, executive and motor skills of children are in place by the end of age 3. What are we doing with these irreplaceable thousand days in the formation of our children? Are we investing significant resources to ensure that they have the very best opportunity to develop these needed skills to their maximum potential? Have we put in place support to families to assist them in preparing their children for success?

“Maikaʻi anei nā keiki?” Let’s take a look at the reality of our current answer.

The state of Hawaii is currently one of the bottom-feeder states when it comes to public investment in early childhood and family education. Approximately half of the children entering kindergarten have had no quality preschool preparation.

According to the Executive Office on Early Learning, more than 40 percent of Hawaii’s children start kindergarten without any experience in an early learning program and many are almost two years behind those who have been in such a program.

Numerous national studies from organizations like the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute for Mental Health show that without preschool preparation, children lag behind their peers and often fail to catch up during their formal education experience. The social costs are chilling in terms of employment opportunities, stress on the formal education system, future criminal behavior, and the hidden costs of depression and mental illness.

A rally for education at the Hawaii State Capitol in January.

Courtesy of Jan E. Hanohano Dill

A study conducted a number of years ago projected that investment in early education provides an avoided social cost return of $7 to $17 for every dollar spent. We should be clamoring for this kind of return on our investment of public resources. Do we understand that if we don’t make it a priority, we are faced with the grim reality that our children will not be prepared with the needed skill sets, aspirations, or Hawaiian values when it is their turn to define our dear Hawaii?

There is a very small but growing realization of the importance of early education and family and child interactive learning. Much of the activity in Hawaii is in the private, nonprofit sector where family education, prenatal and zero- to 3-year-old-focused programs have found innovative ways to reach out to the isolated and poor with early education services. Several of these programs have received recognition at local, national and international levels.

Universal Preschool

There is growing talk in the public sector about universal preschool for 4-year-olds funded through public schools. Universal preschool through the public system is faced with several barriers, including the fact that the system is struggling with achieving success in its core K-12 mission. Integrating universal preschool presents a whole new set of issues with no clear path for overworked administrators and staff. Attached to this is the fact that the current plan is to use existing teachers for the preschool adventure. Trained early education professionals are in short supply and there is no clear indication how that need is to be addressed.

I read in the morning paper that our community is planning to spend over $500 million for a new prison (not including an additional $40 million to expand the women’s prison) and is struggling to keep the cost of an as yet uncompleted and questionably efficient choo-choo train (heavy rail) under $9 billion, while widely proclaiming an astounding commitment to invest in 20 new preschool classrooms with only $14 million in infrastructure costs and $2 million in staff costs. I’ve never been real sharp in math, but the figures shame me and should shame all of us.

We must challenge ourselves and our leaders to take seriously the need for public and personal attention to, as well as investment in, the formation and care of our children.

A heart of a community is seen in the distribution of its investment of its resources. It is clear we embrace self-deception if we ask “Maikaʻi anei nā keiki?” and expect a positive response. It is clear by our public investments that our children are ignored and undervalued and we are paying to correct our past failures and not recognizing our need to invest in a path of success for our children.

The issues are complicated, the resources limited, the public courage often lacking, but let me suggest we consider a few points to share with those in authority over us. First, investment in early education is a needed and proven path for success for our children and families and it needs to be if not at the top, close to the top of priorities for our public policymakers.

Second, as a community we need to imbed a stream of funding that is totally dedicated to a significant investment in early education for our people. There are a number of examples of communities that have committed a long-term tax especially focused on making sure their children and families all have access to quality early education. We need to ask our political leaders to explore alternatives and then put in place a mechanism that provides the resources without undue ongoing political interference.

Third, the public programs of early education need to work closely with the private, nonprofit organizations committed to quality early education for children and families. There is a wide and untapped area of mutual interest and potential partnerships that need to be explored and used for the benefit of our children. The state’s Executive Office on Early Learning is a good starting point.

A final point in these musings about our children, our community, and our conscience brings us to the anchor question of how all this relates to the host Hawaiian culture. “Maikaʻi anei nā keiki?” is an important cultural question. What should our answer be from a cultural perspective? What is the right response within the traditions and history of this unique place?

After discussing this question with language and cultural experts, the response in Hawaiian that we need to strive for as a community is “E Ola nā iwi!” or “the bones live!”

When the question and response is put in a cultural framework, it becomes clear that “ka mea huna” — the secret wisdom of the phrase — is that our ancestors’ bones, their lives, their aspirations of for us are alive in the health and success of our children, and we commit to make it a priority for our lives.

Blessings.

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About the Author

  • Jan E. Hanohano Dill
    Jan E. Hanohano Dill is a Native Hawaiian dedicated to helping communities become healthy and resilient. In 1997, he formed the non-profit organization Partners in Development Foundation, and in 1998, the Consortium for Hawaii Ecological Engineering Education, now known as Malama Aina Foundation. Dill’s opinions and views do not necessarily reflect the vision and policies of PIDF or MAF.