A measure that aims to dramatically expand early learning and childcare access for Hawaii’s toddlers over the next decade cleared two main committees Tuesday, setting it up for a full House vote by March 5.

House Bill 2543, the Access to Learning bill, passed out of the House Lower and Higher Education and Finance committees.

Part of a joint package of bills introduced by House and Senate leadership at the beginning of session to tackle Hawaii’s high cost of living, the bill is aimed at providing all 3- and 4-year-old children with early learning opportunities by 2030.

Right now, about 50% of that age group, or 20,000 children throughout Hawaii, are not enrolled in a preschool or nursery school program. Lack of affordable preschool is one big hurdle: private tuition ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 a year.

There are public preschool programs for 4-year-olds administered by the Executive Office on Early Learning, but once the number of classrooms expands from 44 to 54 classrooms in the 2020-21 school year, it will still only have a potential capacity of 1,100 students.

The proposed Access to Learning bill includes several reporting requirements to help the state identify where Hawaii’s kids are most underserved, but the main mechanism for reaching more toddlers more rapidly is by expanding the Preschool Open Doors program from 4-year-olds to 3- and 4-year-olds.

Smock-wearing preschoolers play together at the water table at Linapuni Elementary in Kalihi in this file photo. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

Preschool Open Doors is a program administrated by the state Department of Human Services that serves kids the year before they start kindergarten — which begins at age 5 in Hawaii — with priority given to underserved or at-risk children because of limited funding.

In 2018, Preschool Open Doors served 1,600 children in Hawaii.

As of Tuesday’s committee vote, there was still no dollar figure included in the proposal to expand this program.

House Lower and Higher Education chairman Justin Woodson said his fellow legislators have only discussed “rough estimates” as far as appropriations and that the figure will ultimately come down to what the finance committee decides.

“I feel good about the proposal as is. There was a lot of massaging,” Woodson said.

Other Provisions

The bill would also set up a special fund within DHS to administer private grants for preschools, establish an early learning coordinator position within the governor’s office, appropriate funds to the Imiloa Astronomy Center to build classrooms for Hawaiian language immersion pre-K programs and appropriate funds to set up early learning classrooms in public libraries.

The bill would also require parents to disclose which preschool program their children participated in, if any, at the time of kindergarten entry to help the state identify where the biggest gaps in preschool coverage are and require the Department of Education to administer assessments to kindergarteners.

The proposed date of implementation has been pushed back one year to 2021 to allow agencies like DHS, the DOE and EOEL to coordinate and share data with one another.

Two legislators voted to pass the measure with reservations: Rep. Val Okimoto, who is on the Lower and Higher Education Committee, and Rep. Bob McDermott, who sits on the House Finance Committee.

Okimoto, a former teacher, said her reservations had to do with the outstanding question about workforce capacity for preschool teachers given the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, and the assessments.

Representative Sylvia Luke during 2020 joint press conference.
House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

House Finance chair Sylvia Luke said that among the four measures included in the joint legislative package to address the cost of living issue in Hawaii, the early learning bill had been the most challenging and difficult to draft.

“It took a lot of work. This is a huge task,” she said before the vote, urging various early learning advocates seated in the room to continue to provide their assistance as the bill moves through the Legislature.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, an early learning advocate under whose administration the Executive Office on Early Learning was created in 2012, applauded lawmakers’ efforts to support expanding preschool access.

“This is less an education issue than it is about childcare and early learning,” he said after the vote, for which he was present.

“There is money,” he added. “The question is, where is the priority?”

Even in its latest form, the bill — which was once more vague in detail — drew a lot of testimony from early education advocates over things like the exact function of the proposed new early learning coordinator role and whether it would be duplicative of the early learning office, which currently oversees expansion of high-quality public preschool programs at DOE schools.

“Is there a need to create a new entity with governing authority to achieve the outcome desired?” the chair of the Early Learning Board, Bob Peters, submitted in his written testimony.

This new coordinator would be appointed and removed by the governor and serve in six-year increments without a term limit.

Register to attend our next Civil Cafe: Legislative Update. Panelists include House Speaker Scott Saiki, Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, and Civil Beat public health reporter Eleni Gill. It’s at noon, Wednesday, March 4, in Room 329 at the Hawaii State Capitol.

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