Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke says that Hawaii is finally poised to significantly expand access to preschool.

The School Facilities Authority has millions of dollars at its disposal to build classrooms and legislators are creating incentives for local graduates to teach in preschools, while working to remove barriers for out-of-state teachers. But more funding will be needed to bolster the workforce. 

While Luke has long championed universal access to pre-K, she has declined to say whether funding for wage increases will be requested during the coming legislative session. 

“We’re still in the planning stages. I think the requests will have many parts, and right now we’re working on the details,” she said, with specifics to be finalized next month. 

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke and Gov. Josh Green flash the shaka at the Hawaii Convention Center.
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke and Gov. Josh Green have pledged to work toward universal access to pre-K by 2032. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Kerrie Urosevich, of Early Childhood Action Strategy, said she wants to see bigger investments in education and child care across the board this coming legislative session, including investment in higher wages for early childhood educators and caregivers. 

“We want them to support a state budget that reflects what we value here — which is Hawaii’s keiki and families. We talk about that a lot, but if you look at our state budget — we don’t reflect that in our budget,” Urosevich said.  

Urosevich said she would like to see the new administration use previously approved funding to lay the groundwork for universal pre-K within its first 100 days on the job.

In 2020, Luke introduced Act 46, a bill that set the framework for expanding Hawaii’s preschool capacity to 100% by 2032. It also appropriated funds for the building of Hawaiian immersion pre-K classrooms. But passage of the bill coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, and it was relegated to the back burner. 

This year, the Legislature confirmed that early learning is a priority when it gave the Department of Education’s construction arm, the School Facilities Authority, $200 million to build early learning classrooms by the end of 2024. 

Going into this legislative session, Luke said one of her main goals is to help show that the administration has “a really good plan of attack to use the $200 million to build out more preschools.”

Work is already being done to identify the communities most in need of public pre-K, and legislators have urged the DOE to track the amount of space available in public schools that could be converted to preschool classrooms. 

Doubling The Workforce

School and nonprofit leaders say staffing will remain problematic unless money goes toward permanently raising early educator pay. 

Director of Early Learning at Hawaii Children’s Action Network, Keopu Reelitz, says the workforce will need to double, possibly triple, by 2032 to make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state. 

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school student raises her hand in class during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
In Hawaii, there are more than 35,000 three- and four-year-olds, and about half of families with children in this age range lack access to nearby, affordable early childhood education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Honolulu City Council member Val Okimoto, a DOE special education teacher for seven years, said that while she supported expansion of pre-K, she hoped that it takes into account that the DOE already has 737 positions open for K-12 teachers. 

Luke, however, said that the majority of open DOE positions are subject-based teaching jobs in high schools, and that with an increasing number of University of Hawaii students completing K-3 training, recruitment should not make the teacher shortage any worse.

Other efforts to expand the workforce are underway. 

Rep. Justin Woodson plans to introduce the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact — a collective agreement that would allow accredited educators to teach across member states — making it easier for out-of-state educators to teach in Hawaii.

And Luke says that she and other lawmakers are looking to use the Hawaii Promise Program, in conjunction with the state’s early college programs, to help high school students become qualified early educators, possibly by the time they graduate from high school. Community college is free for residents with financial need under the Hawaii Promise Plan, and state Reps. Jeanne Kapela and Amy Perruso are working on a bill to extend free tuition to all residents.  

Working With Private Providers To Add Seats

Urosevich says that partnering with private pre-K providers is an important part of making preschool broadly accessible by 2032. 

Hawaii is the only state that does not allow public dollars to fund private early learning programs. The state’s workaround program, Preschool Open Doors, gives low-income families money to use at private providers, but funding is limited and only went to 750 families this year. 

Monthly early child care and preschool expenses average between $1,100 and $1,500 — equivalent to monthly rent or mortgage for many families — according to Hawaii State Point-In-Time Child Care Data

“When it comes to educating our kids, affordability should not be the barrier,” Luke said.

St. Ann School with masked early learning students during in person class during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kids who grow up in poverty are less than a third as likely to attend high-quality preschools than their peers.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Some private providers leverage their own funding to offer services, particularly in rural communities with limited options. Kamehameha Schools is the No. 1 philanthropic preschool provider in the state. 

Other states have a mixed system in which public money can go directly to private early learning centers that meet public need. Urosevich said she suspects the $200 million would go further faster if it were also available to private providers. 

“I personally think it’s going to be very difficult to build out what we need solely through the public education system, so it’ll be interesting to see how the state works to resolve some of these barriers over time,” she said. 

Luke says she supports a mixed delivery system, and that while she finds it unlikely that the state constitution will be amended to allow direct funding of private providers anytime soon, she and her administration will be working with the Department of Human Services, DOE and the Executive Office on Early Learning as well as nonprofits and the private sector to figure out the best path forward. 

“As we build out the public sector, we don’t want to either supplant or decimate private delivery, because private (facilities) provide a very important function,” she said, adding that most parents work well past 2:30 p.m., when — unlike many private providers — public preschools shut their doors. 

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