Emma Kurashige, a mother of two children, worries about her 1-year-old son getting into pre-kindergarten.

The 39-year-old social worker said she was lucky to get her daughter now age 7 into preschool after a wait of more than a year.

She has yet to hear back from the several preschools she applied to last year for her son. As a result, she contemplated quitting her job while trying to source child care.

“It’s difficult trying to work, watch your child and take turns with your other half,” Kurashige said. “You can’t give your 100% to your child and to your work.”

Kurashige’s dilemma illustrates Hawaii’s growing demand for preschool classrooms as many parents from low- to middle-income families continue to struggle to get their children into preschool. That issue was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which closed some preschool classrooms permanently.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke unveiled a widely previewed plan Tuesday to try and meet family demand and create 465 preschool classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds by 2032. The state already allocated $200 million for the School Facilities Authority to expand or renovate up to 200 preschool facilities by June 2024.

The backdrop for the announcement was the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School which would be among the first sites to expand its preschool program.

The need for universal preschools in Hawaii dates back to the 1990s.

Front sign at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School starts August 17 during COVID-19 pandemic. August 13, 2020
Abraham Lincoln Elementary School is one site that is being considered for expanding preschools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Luke estimated that only half of Hawaii’s more than 35,000 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool and 20% of the state’s parents may not want their kids in any educational institutional setting. Luke added that about 9,200 children have parents who want them in preschool but need to be eligible for the subsidies.

“When we look at the needs of our working families, the need for preschools is more than about getting kids ready for kindergarten and for life,” Luke said in an interview after the news conference. “It’s a social equity issue because individuals who can already afford to send their kids to preschools are already doing it.”

The Ready Keiki initiative aims to increase provider subsidies for lower income families with children and train new preschool teachers and assistants. In addition the plan includes retrofitting about 50 elementary classrooms at the state Department of Education, nearly 30 public charter schools as well public libraries, high schools and universities.

The blueprint drew positive reviews from early childhood education advocates but concerns from a former governor.

“I don’t understand why the program will take nine years to complete,” former Gov. Ben Cayetano said in a phone interview.

Cayetano underscored that he’s not worried about the overall management of the plan, but has concerns about the “personnel that’s going to teach the class or care for the youngsters,” adding that the state has faced a chronic shortage of teachers for decades.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, introduced a public-private effort to increase the number of preschool seats statewide at a press event at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

But Luke said it wouldn’t take a decade to complete the plan.

“Now that we’re going through this process, we’re looking at mixed deliveries and multiple ways of building,” Luke said in an interview after the news conference. “So we have about 10 years to achieve it, but I’m hoping we can do it faster.”

Advocates Kerrie Urosevich and Keopu Reelitz are optimistic.

Reelitz, of Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said she appreciates Luke spotlighting the need for more preschools but “we just want to make sure that plan for expansion really ensures that we are focusing on the workforce,” Reelitz said. “I think that that’s one of the things where we feel some synergy, where we’re all on the same page.”

Change Of Tack From HSTA

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said he supports the effort to build more preschools.

“Preschool is important to get students ready for kindergarten,” Tui said. “As HSTA, we side with wanting to ensure that as much of our public taxpayer money is going to public facilities, public teachers and public schools.”

He added that there might be stumbling blocks to ensuring that there are highly qualified early learning educators to fill the positions.

“We need to make sure the pipeline is there,” he continued.

The union had opposed previous administration efforts to expand preschools.

Tui said he wasn’t involved during that time but generally the union doesn’t support taxpayer money going to private entities.

Urosevich of Early Childhood Action Strategy said she’s hopeful that the plan will be successful this time, adding that many stakeholders attended the launch including state and county officials, heads of the School Facilities Authority and heads of the public and charter schools.

She underscored that having a mixed delivery system is critical to meet the needs of Hawaii families.

“The public pre-kindergarten program only runs until 2:30 p.m. without any after-school programming, which is hard on working parents,” Urosevich said. “Most other preschools go until 5 or 6 p.m.”

Urosevich said she had previously paid $800 a month for preschool tuition, considered a lot in the early 2000s.

Now preschool tuition typically costs more than $1,500 per month, according to Luke.

Luke’s initiative also calls for expanding state subsidies under the federal Preschool Open Doors program for low-income families. Luke said she estimated it would cost $40 million to add 3-year-olds and raise the subsidy amount.

She added that the operational cost for running a preschool classroom is $175,000 to cover the teachers and other expenses. The initiative will cost $1 million to renovate each classroom and $2 million to build a new one, Luke said.

Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Luke’s plan mirrored what he was pushing to do during his administration to expand 32 public school classrooms for 640 preschool students. But those efforts failed.

Cayetano said during his time as governor the state shifted its priorities from preschool expansion to dealing with the 9/11 attack, a teachers’ strike and recession.

“Those are the things that affected what we could and could not do,” Cayetano said. “They don’t seem to have those kinds (of challenges) this time around.”

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

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