The full Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on a bill that strengthens the authority of a state office separate from the Hawaii Department of Education to oversee expansion of high-quality public pre-kindergarten in the state.

Senate Bill 78, which clarifies that the Executive Office on Early Learning shall have the administrative authority over state-funded pre-K, is a catch-all piece of legislation that would also sustain funding for 18 existing public charter school pre-K classrooms, add funding for 10 new public pre-K classrooms and provide more than $10 million in appropriations to DOE programs unrelated to pre-K, such as its Early College program, school health services and applied behavioral analysis.

Carol Taniguchi, chief clerk of the Hawaii Senate, said Tuesday the bill is set for a final vote Thursday after the Senate worked out its disagreement with the House.

Thursday is the last day of the 2019 legislative session. If SB 78 passes, the bill will head to the governor’s office.

Smock-wearing preschoolers play together at the water table at Linapuni Elementary in Kalihi in this 2017 photo.

Suevon Lee

At the center of the bill, whose original content was altered in a classic gut-and-replace, is a provision that clearly establishes the early learning office’s administrative control over state-funded pre-K, including oversight of funding, curriculum, instruction, assessment and professional support to instructors.

The contents of House Bill 921, which was the original legislation that sought to clarify the early learning office’s administrative control over state-funded pre-K, were put into SB 78, a bill that once proposed a study for the adequacy of education funding.

With that original language now stripped, the bill — at 45 pages long — also proposes $4 million in funding next school year to continue 18 public charter school pre-K classrooms that were at risk of being yanked due to the upcoming expiration of the federal preschool development grant that helped establish those classrooms.

It also includes a sizable general appropriation to state DOE for programs that are hallmarks or provide key services.

Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of the Senate Education Committee, spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday to encourage a vote for the bill, specifically citing funding for existing and additional pre-K classrooms.

The Bill’s Specifics

The early learning office was statutorily established in 2012 to build out the framework for high-quality early childhood learning in Hawaii.

Attached to the DOE for administrative purposes only, the independent state entity was charged with expanding high-quality public pre-K in Hawaii. Subsequent legislation since 2012 spoke to the legislative will to enshrine that authority in statute in the midst of political forces threatening to upend that authority.

This year signified the most bruising political fight yet around that issue.

With the governor pleading cooperation, school superintendent Christina Kishimoto has gone on the record to state she felt the DOE should be more involved in public pre-K expansion to ensure seamless integration from pre-K to kindergarten on up through 12th grade.

At recent Board of Education meetings, the superintendent has referred to the DOE as a “PreK-12” state agency rather than the usual K-12 description.

The governor kicked off this legislative session with a robust call to arms for universal pre-K, championing an ongoing partnership between the early learning office and the DOE.

Ige’s “Hawaii Early Childhood State Plan 2019-2024″ reflected that pledge. That plan, says the text of Senate Bill 78, “confirms the need for information-sharing and collaboration between diverse settings to support children and families as they move between settings and transition into kindergarten and the primary grades.”

But behind the scenes, the partnership has been short of seamless, although the two entities in theory agree on the need to expand pre-K without compromising on quality.

Kishimoto has expressed urgency to roll out public pre-K classrooms at a faster pace. The early learning office, under director Lauren Moriguchi, has cautioned against too rapid an expansion in order to focus on hiring highly qualified instructors and building a proper foundation for a high quality early learning system.

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto after early learning signing at the Gov’s office.

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto has been a strong proponent of pre-K and wants her agency to be more involved in expansion of programs.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The DOE would still retain authority over establishing new federally funded Title 1 and special education pre-K classrooms.

Senate Bill 78 states that while the school superintendent shall sign all drafts for the payment of money, the EOEL director shall be “the final authority on drafts for the payment of moneys, all commissions and appointments, all deeds, official acts, or other documents related to the executive office on early learning.”

It also clarifies that the early learning office director’s role is supervising and directing the planning, evaluation, and coordination of early learning programs; administering funds; employing and retaining staff; and contracting for services.

The bill explicitly bars the DOE from establishing general ed pre-K classrooms, aside from those exceptions mentioned above, but says it shall continue to provide those services like facilities and capital improvement work to new pre-K classrooms that are “generally provided to schools.”

It also lays out criteria for prioritizing new openings, including the school-area population of at-risk or underserved children and commitment of school principals to implement high-quality pre-K program in their schools.

SB 78 also appropriates $362,000 in the 2019-20 school year and $989,000 in the 2020-21 school year for the early learning office to open 10 additional classrooms and authorizes the Department of Finance to issue general obligation bonds in the amount of $6.5 million to retrofit 10 classrooms on DOE campuses to expand public pre-K.

As far as general funding to the DOE, it appropriates $1.5 million to expand the DOE’s Early College program, $7.6 million for skilled nursing services and $1.8 million for ABA services to students.

“Going back to the composition of the bill, it has things that everyone needs,” said Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Lower and Higher Education Committee.

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