Education and childcare officials have a lot of unanswered questions about a plan championed by Gov. David Ige and top lawmakers to offer parents greatly expanded pre-kindergarten and childcare options in Hawaii.

Those include how to implement the ambitious proposal of providing all of Hawaii’s 3- and 4-year-olds with early learning access within the next decade; how to staff those efforts; and who will be in charge of what.

These questions cropped up during a special meeting convened last Friday by the Early Learning Board, the policy-making body of the Executive Office on Early Learning, which is the agency in charge of building out a high-quality public pre-kindergarten system in the state.

Some officials wondered how the new plan will continue the momentum around pre-K built over the last decade, or how it would build upon a comprehensive early childhood state plan signed by various agencies last year.

“The question for me is, what happens to all that’s preceded (this proposal)? Does it go away, do we build on it, does it get integrated in some way, are we starting all over again to create something?” asked Robert Peters, chairman of the Early Learning Board.

Early Learning Board, early education, early childhood, education
The Early Learning Board convened a special meeting on Jan. 31 to discuss the “Learning to Grow” bill as part of a joint legislative package to expand access to childcare. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2020


Expanding early education and childcare access to underserved 3- and 4-year-old children in Hawaii through public-private partnerships and use of more facilities is part of a joint legislative agenda introduced by House and Senate leadership in January.

The proposal is part of a broader package of bills released by Ige and legislative leaders, with the backing of Hawaii’s business community, to tackle Hawaii’s high cost of living. The other proposals relate to a minimum wage increase and more funding for affordable housing.

The early learning plan is ambitious in scope: it calls for reaching at least a quarter of all underserved, eligible kids with “access to learning” by 2022. The plan then calls for reaching half of that population by 2025, and all of those children by 2030. It would require adding about 100 new preschool classrooms annually.

Roughly half of Hawaii’s kindergarteners in public school, or about 20,000 kids, have never attended preschool. The high cost of private preschool is a huge barrier, as are limited options for parents who want a public preschool program.

Hawaii currently has 44 public pre-K classrooms for 4-year-olds and plans to open 10 more public pre-K classrooms in the 2020-21 school year, according to Lauren Moriguchi, executive director of the Executive Office on Early Learning.

“Access to learning” is defined broadly in House Bill 2543 and companion bill Senate Bill 3101 as encompassing both educational and childcare settings, such as programs like private preschool or Head Start programs, family child care and home-based instruction programs.

According to a current version of the bill, a new “Learn to Grow Agency” would be required, among other things, to establish early learning programs and services through public and private partnerships; hire qualified and effective teachers; develop standards of accountability to ensure high quality early learning; and make the public aware of these opportunities.

The new agency would also administer grant money to public or private programs.

The new agency would be attached to the state Department of Human Services. The early learning office, which would be dissolved under the current version, is currently part of the Department of Education.

How Will This Expansion Work?

Last week’s meeting brought together Early Learning Board members, the heads of DHS and EOEL, representatives from the Hawaii DOE and early education and childcare advocates.

One thing that came up was how childcare and early education officials were not part of the initial dialogue between lawmakers and the business community in crafting the proposal.

“We hadn’t been involved in any of those conversations. That would have prevented all of this confusion going on right now,” Moriguchi said.

DHS Executive Director Pankaj Bhanot said he only learned of the proposal on Jan. 7, a week before a press conference was organized by state leadership.

He also emphasized at the meeting that roles have to be distinct so as not to shift any education-related duties onto the DHS, such as training teachers, which administers social services support.

An ambitious legislative proposal calls for adding about 100 pre-K classrooms a year. Pictured here is a Head Start class at Linapuni Elementary. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

“DHS is not in the business of providing educational services. We are not DOE,” he said. “We are the agency that provides options to families to choose appropriate childcare for their children while they are pursuing employment, education or training.”

DHS administers the Preschool Open Doors program, a subsidized pre-K program available to low or moderate income families. According to Bhanot, the department is unable to expend the entirety of the annual $11.6 million budget for that program because not enough families are signing up.

In 2019, DHS had not spent $1 million of that fund, an amount that could have served 131 more children.

One reason the program can’t reach capacity is families may not be aware of the program. Another is that families assume they may not be eligible, so they don’t apply. And some families might just opt for choices that are closer to home or work, according to Bhanot.

“It is a great opportunity to have a public-private dialogue and investment that will really provide unbelievable opportunities for our children and families, especially 3- and 4-year-olds to have access,” Bhanot said in a Monday interview about the state’s proposal.

“At the same time, all of the existing efforts we’ve put together for the last 15, 20 years should continue.”

Moriguchi, the head of the early learning office, said it’s still too early to tell how these details will be figured out.

“We’ve heard the broader vision of the Legislature and we have yet to hear how all of this will be rolled out,” she said. “We understand it’s a mixed delivery system and I think that’s what we are still trying to figure out.”

Hawaii’s business community has pledged $150 million toward the effort, according to Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Michelle Kidani. The early learning bill does not yet have a financial appropriation attached to it.

Jim Shon, the former director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, said the devil is in the details as far as the early learning plan goes.

“Those who were not at the table (initially) may have important insights on how to do this better,” he said. “It’s a matter of how intelligent the design is and did you think of everything?”

Other bills introduced this session also prioritize early learning, including House Bill 2064, which would establish an income tax credit for employers who create on-site early childhood facilities.

This would help parents deal with high childcare costs and expand access to early childhood learning programs, according to the bill.

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