The word “learning” appears no fewer than 98 times in the latest draft version of House Bill 2543, the ambitious preschool expansion bill that passed out of that chamber last week and is now before the Senate Education and Ways and Means committees.

But that’s not why House Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the Consumer Protection and Commerce committee and former longtime House Education committee chairman, said he became supportive of the “Access to Learning” bill when he was initially opposed to it.

“I’ve since learned that this is not an early learning bill, it’s not a preschool bill, it’s a child care bill,” Takumi said in remarks on the House floor last week.

“The goal of this bill is child care. The goal of this bill is to help working families with their bills when it comes to child care, so why not support it,” he said.

House Bill 2543 has gone through a number of iterations since the opening of the legislative session. It had initially raised many questions over specifics and how exactly lawmakers planned to reach their target of reaching all Hawaii’s 3- and 4-year-olds with preschool by 2030, when roughly half of that age group — an estimated 20,000 kids — currently isn’t enrolled in any pre-K program.

While there are still many kinks to be ironed out and plenty of amendments suggested in the latest round of testimony to the Senate Education committee, the evolution of the bill has drawn new battle lines as far as distinguishing between a high-quality pre-kindergarten program and a child care program, which could include a registered family home or licensed infant and toddler center.

Some want to see more emphasis on kindergarten readiness, particularly given what research says about the connection between high-quality early instruction and a child’s later success in life.

Mari Uehara, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii, testified she was concerned by the “notion of offering simply childcare ‘seats’ to working families.”

“Preschools should be able to provide educational opportunities for children and their families to help them get ready for kindergarten, so children have a better chance to be successful in schools and further in their lives,” her testimony states.

HB 2543 as it stands now would expand Hawaii’s Preschool Open Doors program to both 3- and 4-year-olds; set up a special fund within the Department of Human Services to make this program more widely available; require parents to disclose which pre-K program their kindergarteners attended, if any; and require the DOE to assess kindergarteners, among other things.

It also establishes a new “Early Learning Coordinator” role within the Office of the Governor to basically oversee the preschool expansion effort.

Preschool Open Doors works like a voucher system: it offers subsidies to eligible working families to apply toward a childcare program licensed by DHS. That agency does safety and background checks of facilities, but it does not assess any educational component of the program.

The Executive Office on Early Learning is keen on expanding high-quality public pre-K programs, of which there are currently 44 classrooms in operation at 36 DOE and charter schools.

In testimony to the Legislature, EOEL’s executive director Lauren Moriguchi commended the bill’s intention to expand childcare access for working and lower-income families. At the same time, she urged lawmakers to “focus on more than access — we must improve the quality of their care and education experiences.”

Clearer Definitions?

The Hawaii Association of Independent Schools, whose subsidiary, the Hawaii Council of Private Schools, licenses all private K-12 schools in Hawaii, recommends the bill contain a working definition of preschool to distinguish academic programs from other child care programs. It also wants to see more appropriations to the former.

“We’re certainly in favor of the intent to provide early learning for as many people in the state,” said Philip Bossert, executive director of HAIS, in an interview. “We are worried about staffing those programs with qualified people.”

The weight on quality in the proposed legislation is the catch point: in the original version of HB 2543, the word “quality” appeared 22 times — for instance, in a line proposing to develop incentives to “enhance the quality of services, programs and professionals within the early learning system.”

In this most recent form, the word quality only appears twice, in more or less generic terms.

Rep. Roy Takumi voted yes, with reservations, to the preschool expansion bill because he became convinced it would provide working families with more child care options. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some groups are worried that the ambitious effort to ramp up preschool options for unserved 3- and 4-year-olds may overlook the need to staff early learning centers with qualified personnel.

This is complicated by the fact there is a shortage of licensed early education instructors in the state and that they aren’t paid well.

While the average teacher salary of a Hawaii Department of Education teacher is $65,000, the average salary for a preschool worker in Hawaii is around $34,000, according to the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

The “Access to Learning” bill is part of a rare joint legislative package supported by House and Senate leadership intended to blunt the cost of living burden for Hawaii’s working families. Private preschool can start at $7,000 annually and public pre-K programs through the EOEL will only have a maximum capacity of 1,100 seats for 4-year-olds by next school year.

“This bill is not a school readiness package, it’s an economic stimulus for families,” said Kerrie Urosevich, the head of network design and strategy for Early Childhood Action Strategy.

Contact Key Lawmakers

She emphasized that any early learning environment for a 3- or 4-year-old should be one of quality that supports the backbone of learning.

“The provider, whoever the child is left with, should have the skill set to support child, cognitive and behavioral development,” she said.

HB 2543 passed on the House floor last week with little opposition, clearing by a 50-1 vote.

Only Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican, voted no, and three legislators — Takumi, Rep. Amy Perruso and Rep. Val Okimoto, voted yes with reservations.

Decision making on the bill by the Senate Education committee will take place on Wednesday.

The bill’s evolution reflects its moving parts. By the time it passed out of the House Lower and Higher Education and Finance committees on Feb. 25, the bill had gone through its fourth iteration in six weeks. Many early learning leaders hadn’t known about the bill until just days before it was unveiled at a Jan. 14 press conference — and discussions with stakeholders began taking place since then.

“When announced at the presser, it surprised the entire (early learning) network,” said Urosevich. “Then (we) got called and asked, can you start to host some conversations?”

These conversations have included the early learning community, legislative leaders and Hawaii Executive Collaborative, a nonprofit comprised of business leaders who have pledged at least $150 million to support this endeavor. There is still no specific appropriation written into the bill.

The HEC has also hired an outside consultant, Mel Horikami, former president of Verizon Hawaii, to come up with a new 10-year strategic plan to guide this preschool expansion.

It will draw from other plans, including a mixed-delivery public-private preschool plan developed in 2013 and a 10-year framework developed last year by EOEL, the state entity established in 2012 to build out a high-quality pre-kindergarten program in Hawaii.

Joint Senate House Gov presser in crowded Capitol Room 445.
The preschool expansion bill is part of a joint package announced by House and Senate leadership, the governor’s office and business leaders to ease the cost of living burden on working families. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

EOEL’s three-year snapshot of what it will take to expand early education for Hawaii’s kids in that time frame alone pits the cost estimate at $30 million just for facilities and $600,000 for a teacher training induction program.

While Horikami was not available to comment on his role in the effort, Lynelle Marble, executive director of the Hawaii Executive Collaborative, said in an email to Civil Beat his work will be “key to helping shape the strategies for implementation in partnership with all the key stakeholders.”

Takumi, in his floor remarks, reminded his colleagues about the contentious Hawaii Department of Education and EOEL showdown last legislative session over which entity should be in control of pre-K expansion in the state.

He said he hoped the new proposed Early Learning Coordinator role wouldn’t detract from EOEL’s focus on scaling up high quality preschool.

“Mr. Speaker, it is very difficult to avoid conflict between programs, between agencies, between departments, without intentionally putting that conflict into a bill,” he said. “This bill sets up conflict, to put it mildly (and) in the worst case scenario, paralysis.”

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