A contentious bill dealing with the expansion of public pre-kindergarten in Hawaii quietly became law this week without the governor’s signature, but residual friction has spilled over to the state’s education policy-making body.

During a recent Hawaii Board of Education meeting, several members questioned why expanding early education did not appear as one of the BOE’s strategic priorities for 2019-20 under the “student achievement” category.

“If we don’t get more kids into preschool, we’re still going to be figuring out how to take care of the achievement gap 50 years from now,” said board member Maggie Cox.

Board of Education meeting. Catherine Payne .
Some Board of Education members questioned why the need for pre-kindergarten wasn’t prioritized in a BOE report. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The reason for no mention of early education, explained BOE Chairwoman Catherine Payne, was because the Early Learning Board — the governing board for the Executive Office on Early Learning — had requested its removal from a draft list of BOE priorities.

“What we didn’t want to have happen again is the divisive circumstances that occurred (in session) that I think impacted our goals,” Payne said at the June 20 meeting. “There was a huge division that occurred during this last legislative session and it was a heavy lift to even get what we got.”

Specifically, that included funding for an additional 10 pre-K classrooms around Hawaii, plus more than $10 million in funding for unrelated state Department of Education programs like Early College, school health services and applied behavioral analysis.

But the core provision that enabled those appropriations was clarifying that it’s the Office on Early Learning, and not the DOE, that has administrative oversight of expanding pre-K.

That means the office, which was established in 2012 to build out the framework for high-quality early learning in the state, has control over pre-K classroom funding, instruction, assessment and professional support to early education instructors.

The DOE, under the leadership of superintendent Christina Kishimoto, fought to wrest control over pre-K expansion from the early learning office, arguing it should be more involved since that stage is a vital part of the continuum of learning through the 12th grade.

The DOE will still maintain control over special education pre-K classrooms and federally funded Title 1 pre-K classrooms.

Despite the tension this past session, both parties had pledged to work together, saying they were committed to a broader state effort to improve the health and learning outcomes of Hawaii’s youngest kids.

During an Early Learning Board meeting Thursday afternoon, board members discussed the broad contours of priorities moving forward plus the location of the 10 new pre-K classrooms, which aren’t slated to open until fall 2020.

There are currently 26 public pre-K classrooms in 23 DOE schools serving a total capacity of 520 4-year-olds. The 10 additional classrooms will ramp that up by another 200 seats.

The 10 classrooms will be at the following schools: on Oahu, Aiea Elementary, Haleiwa Elementary, Nanaikapono Elementary, Waianae Elementary, Palolo Elementary and Waimanolo Elementary & Intermediate; on Big Island, Chiefess Kapiolani Elementary, Hilo Union Elementary and Honaunau Elementary; and on Maui, Pukalani Elementary.

After the meeting, Lauren Moriguchi, director of the early learning office, said her office had received an email “shortly before” the June 20 BOE meeting concerning the strategic priorities the BOE planned to introduce.

“My response was that a lot of the priorities they had outlined seemed to be the responsibilities of the early learning board, to coordinate the system,” she said. “I had asked them to hold off on making any decisions around that until they had had a conversation with (Early Learning Board Chair) Bob Peters.”

That’s what the BOE did. In fact, the entity that shapes overall education policy for the state deferred voting to approve all strategic priorities for the upcoming school year — a list that also includes special education, English language learners and students’ emotional and mental well-being — until a future meeting.

The omission of the importance of pre-K clearly left some board members sore.

“I think you should put early education and preschool as a priority,” BOE member Nolan Kawano said at the June 20 meeting. “Rhetorical question: I didn’t realize EOEL approves our committee priorities. Do they?”

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