In March, Julie Kalakau determined which children would fill the seats of Sunshine School for the 2022-23 school year. When she was done, she realized that there were still enough applicants to fill two more classroom spaces, but her preschool was at capacity.

Hawaii faces a critical shortage of early learning centers. The problem was made only worse by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced some owners to permanently close their doors. A new law seeks to change this.

In a historic investment for early childhood education in Hawaii, Act 257 allocates $200 million for the construction, expansion or renovation of prekindergarten facilities across the state. The School Facilities Authority must spend the money by the end of June 2024.

The act advances the state’s ambitious goal of providing all 3- and 4-year-old students with access to preschool education by 2032, as laid out in Act 46. Currently, Hawaii only has the capacity to serve 50% of its students in that age group, and the burden of finding affordable, accessible child care primarily falls on middle and low-income families.

Sunshine School Kailua Preschool Early Childhood Education
Julie Kalakau, director of the Sunshine School in Kailua, said she would use the funding from Act 257 to expand her preschool’s facilities in order to meet the needs of local families. Courtesy: Julie Kalakau

However, the details of construction have yet to be determined as the new law has ambiguous language that leaves open the question about what facilities are eligible for the funding.

Sylvia Luke, the chair of the House Finance Committee who introduced the bill, promised the $200 million will fund the creation of 2,000 to 4,000 prekindergarten seats over the next two years.

“This is the starting point of aggressive preschool expansion,” said Luke, who is running for lieutenant governor.

‘Building Out Where It Makes Sense’

In Hawaii, the demand for prekindergarten is high, but the availability of seats is low, making the state one of the worst in the nation when it comes to preschool enrollment.

According to the UH Center on the Family, 86% of Hawaii families lack access to nearby, affordable early childhood education. That poses a significant problem for families struggling to find quality child care that will allow parents to work as well as promote the academic development of their children.

To achieve universal access to prekindergarten, Hawaii must use a mixed delivery system relying on all early child care providers in the state, said Kerrie Urosevich of the Early Childhood Action Strategy. Those would include private providers, public preschools, family child care centers and Head Start, a federally funded program for low-income families.

“It’s very, very expensive to just run all child care and preschool through public funds,” Urosevich said. “Ultimately, that’s what we always want, building out where it makes sense to build out and where it meets family need.”

However, it remains unclear if all providers will be eligible for the $200 million appropriated under Act 257.

In testimony, Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks and Early Childhood Action Strategy requested that the Legislature change eligible facilities from “preschool facilities” to “early care and learning programs.”

That small change in the language would include nontraditional early learning providers, including family child interaction learning programs, said Keʻopu Reelitz, the director of early learning and health policy at HCAN Speaks.

The bill’s final language simply states that the School Facilities Authority must use the money to “expand access to pre-kindergarten.” While this wording does not provide the clarity HCAN sought, it also does not block opportunities for inclusive funding, Reelitz said.

The responsibility of determining eligibility falls on Chad Keone Farias, executive director of SFA.

Complicating matters, the responsibilities provided to SFA under Act 257 do not align with the original duties of the authority, Farias said. While SFA was initially created to build public school facilities, Act 257 potentially extended SFA’s authority when it failed to specify what types of prekindergarten providers could qualify for construction funds.

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Farias said he will work closely with the state attorney general and prekindergarten programs to determine the funding opportunities available. While Act 257’s language has raised some confusion, it also offers the potential to grow the capacity of all Hawaii providers, Farias added.

“The private sector is really worried about this money, and so am I,” Farias said. “Because, up until now, they’ve actually done all of the providing of (education) for us.”

On the public sector side, the demand for new facilities already exists. Farias currently has requests for the construction of 21 new public prekindergarten classrooms, run by the Executive Office on Early Learning.

SFA faces a time crunch in spending the $200 million: while the funds expire at the end of June 2024, the Legislature could pull back some of the funding going into the next fiscal year, Farias said. He added that he wants to aid the construction of as many facilities as possible, emphasizing that any interested provider should request a meeting with SFA to learn about their options and lay out their plans.

“At the end of the day, the SFA is really wanting to build out pre-K seats,” Farias said. “Nobody should discount themselves from at least making the ask.”

As the director of a private preschool, Kalakau said she is eager to expand Sunshine School to meet her community’s demand. If she is eligible to receive money from Act 257, she hopes to add more classrooms to her existing property in Kailua or to purchase and develop new land.

Kalakau added that a lack of information on how to secure Act 257 funding and determine her eligibility has significantly slowed down her planning process.

“I think that most early childhood programs really want to contribute to the needs of families and children,” Kalakau said. “I think that more transparency and more notice, and how we can be more involved or what’s our options, would be really helpful.”

University of Hawaii Manoa Children's Center Preschool Pre-K Education
Lani Au, director of the UH Manoa Children’s Center, said she plans to support other prekindergarten centers interested in securing Act 257 funds. UH Manoa Children’s Center

Lani Au, director of the University of Hawaii Manoa Childcare Center, said some centers may struggle to meet the demands of a quick spending turnaround. At her own center, plans for expansion in 2025 are currently underway but have required over a year of planning and close collaboration with the university.

“I think the timing is going to be hard. I think the intention was very, very good,” Au said.

‘A Crisis In A Crisis’

SFA will not discriminate when deciding which areas of the state will qualify for Act 257 funds. While the authority will use data from the Executive Office on Early Learning to inform its decisions, it will not deny any providers funding because the surrounding community does not have a need for early childhood education, Farias said.

“There is not an island on Hawaii, not a county, not a place that doesn’t have pre-K needs,” Farias said. “We’ve fallen behind in providing these seats.”

Micah Kane, CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation, agreed, adding that the state should prioritize building as many classrooms as possible over the next two years.

“There’s areas where it’s a crisis in a crisis, and so there are geographies that we know where need is higher,” Kane said. “But right now, there’s so much need that you can’t really miss.”

At the same time, increasing the number of seats in the state is only half the battle. As new facilities open, Reelitz worries that Hawaii will face the need to add more staff despite longstanding shortages due to problems with recruiting and retaining educators.

To reach the state’s goal of providing preschool access to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the next 10 years, Hawaii would need to double the size of its current workforce, according to an emailed statement from the Executive Office on Early Education.

SB 2701, which established a subsidy pilot program to support early childhood educators, made steps toward addressing the state’s chronic problem. However, it failed to pass in the 2022 Legislature.

Kane also recognized that the staffing of new classrooms may create challenges in the future. However, the state must first focus on building the new facilities, he said.

“Not delivering on this funding is just not acceptable. And we just have to find a way to do it,” Kane said. “If it’s a priority, we can make it happen.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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