Gov. David Ige, top state lawmakers and business leaders on Tuesday unveiled an ambitious new proposal to dramatically expand access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds through a public-private partnership that would be overseen by a new state agency.
The initiative, part of a rare joint legislative package, aims to significantly ramp up the number of preschool classrooms through potential use of facilities like Aloha Stadium, University of Hawaii campuses and the Hawaii Convention Center.
The local business community has pledged $150 million toward the effort, according to Sen. Michelle Kidani, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
The “Learning to Grow Agency,” attached to the Department of Human Services, would have a five-year goal of providing preschool to 25% of previously unserved 3- and 4-year-olds by 2022 and at least half of that age group with preschool by 2025.
Most preschool is provided through the private sector. State data shows about 45% of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds, or 8,300 students, attended private pre-K in 2017.
But the cost of private preschool is out of reach for many families, with the annual price tag of full-time care at a child care center running about $8,800, according to the University of Hawaii Center on the Family.
By contrast, just 2,200 kids, or 12% of 4-year-olds, were served by Head Start, a federally funded program, or special ed preschool run through DOE. Another 520 students attend public pre-K programs managed by the Executive Office on Early Learning, an agency attached to the Department of Education.
The initiative is “really ensuring there is equitable access for everyone in our community to quality childcare. This will require an entire community effort,” said Gov. David Ige at the press conference where the plan was unveiled.
In his 2019 State of the State address, the governor touted the goal of a “universal, statewide high-quality” public preschool system in Hawaii.
But it’s unclear exactly how state lawmakers and business leaders envision such a rapid expansion unfolding on the ground.
“I don’t think we really know yet the path forward except this is, ‘We’re going to put a man on the moon and we don’t really know how,’” said Deb Zysman, executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network.
The immediate goal of the “Learning to Grow” legislation is to increase the number of pre-K classrooms by 100 a year, said Rep. Justin Woodson, chairman of the House Lower and Higher Education Committee.
To put that number into context, the Executive Office on Early Learning plans to open only 10 new pre-K classrooms statewide by the 2020-21 school year. That would expand the number of public pre-K classrooms to 55 classrooms on 46 campuses, plus in charter schools, for a total capacity of 1,100 students. That’s just under 6% of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds.
The pace of the rollout of new pre-K classrooms has been a thorny issue. Whether DOE should oversee that expansion was the subject of much debate last legislative session. In 2014, Hawaii voters defeated a ballot initiative to amend the state Constitution to allow the use of public money for private preschool programs.
This new initiative moves the needle significantly ahead, although some business members joining lawmakers during the announcement expressed the need to iron out more details.
“I thought we were moving too slow,” said Mitch D’Olier, president and CEO of Kaneohe Ranch Company and a member of the State Charter School Commission, at the press conference. “I’m delighted to see the coalition come together. There’s all kinds of details that need to be worked on to solve this and there’s a lot of people we haven’t talked to yet that we will reach out to.”
The proposal calls not just for new classrooms, but “learning centers” that would be developed on state properties or state-owned sites like Aloha Stadium.
According to Kidani, head of the Senate Education Committee, leaders are looking at a model like Preschool Open Doors, a program managed by the Department of Human Services that provides child care subsidies to lower and moderate income families.
Kidani said they’re looking to identify existing facilities to establish learning centers at places like college campuses, teaching academies at high schools or on sites along the proposed rail line to make it more convenient and easier for families to reach.
The reason why the proposed new “Learning to Grow” agency would be attached to DHS rather than DOE, she added, is because it would not be offering free preschool but rather on a sliding-scale pay model.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel but be able to offer something as soon as possible with our public-private partnerships and get going,” she said.
Lauren Moriguchi, executive director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, said in an email that she looks forward to getting more details on the bills and to hear the discussion in the coming months.
“We know from our work building the public pre-kindergarten program that success requires qualified teachers and the capacity to support these teachers in those positions,” she wrote. “We know too that the State Legislature has put a lot of faith in our office over the years. We are thankful for their investment in EOEL and are ready to work with legislators to share our lessons learned and successes achieved.”
Lindsay Chambers, DOE spokeswoman, said by email it would be premature to comment on the proposal but that the agency “looks forward to continuing its conversations with lawmakers.”
During this unique election season, we appreciate that you and others like you have relied on Civil Beat for accurate, objective coverage of the candidates and their races.
Covering the pandemic has taken a lot of our collective energy. But through it all, our small team of reporters made sure you didn’t forget about electoral politics. Because we know that elections not only test society’s participation in our democracy, but journalism’s commitment to safeguarding it.
If you’ve relied on our election coverage this season, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our newsroom.