Half a dozen states have universal pre-K programs, but their features vary widely.

Outreach to families and bolstering the teacher workforce will be critical to expanding preschools in Hawaii, based on the experience of states that are further along in the process. 

Oklahoma has had its preschool program in place since 1980, while states like Colorado are set to launch later this year and California by the 2025-2026 school year. 

Jade Jenkins, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies early childhood policies, found states rolling out universal pre-K have grappled with similar challenges — teacher shortages, appropriate curriculum and deciding between full- or half-day programs. 

California, in particular, is trying to address the teacher shortage by getting local governments to bump up teacher paychecks even while some classrooms are closing, KQED reported.

“The hurdles are happening in real time right now,” Jenkins said. 

Hawaii is set to roll out its universal pre-K for all 3- to 5-year-olds by 2032. (Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017)

Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke unveiled an ambitious plan to expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds following a state law passed in 2020 that set the benchmark for preschool capacity at 100% by 2032.

The Ready Keiki initiative is a mixed-delivery system that aims to create more than 465 classrooms, increase subsidies for lower-income families and collaborate with universities to update their teaching curriculum by having a dedicated preschool school degree.

Sarah Neville-Morgan, deputy superintendent for the teacher and learning support branch at the California Department of Education, offered these three tips:

  • Analyze data to look at how the implementation is going, who is participating, and what participation looks like on the different islands;
  • Do not underestimate what it will take to build the teacher workforce pipeline;
  • Have a communication plan to inform all families about the program in languages they can understand. 

Luke said that’s sound advice, noting that Hawaii’s planning anticipates many of those issues, including using a web portal that tracks all the current preschool seats in public and private schools. 

“That’s why we gave ourselves a 10-year window, so every time we build, we’re going to track the enrollment and then adjust,” Luke said. “That’s the beauty of building modular buildings so that if the enrollment is not present at a structured area, then we’re going to move the modular room elsewhere.”

Hawaii has already allocated $200 million for the School Facilities Authority to build up to 200 preschool classrooms by June 2024.

Teacher Shortages And Qualifications

Jenkins said the teacher shortage is the No. 1 concern for California. She said there are not enough teachers to fill those preschool roles currently in public schools.

A similar situation exists in Hawaii and teacher resignations are at a five-year peak, according to a recent state Department of Education report

But the major impediment remains the high cost of living. Hawaii lawmakers have been pushing for more teacher housing. A Senate bill moving through the Legislature appropriated $185 million to the School Facilities Authority to build teacher housing at Waipahu High School, Mililani High School and Nanakuli High and Intermediate schools. 

Luke said the teacher housing may be available to preschool teachers as long as they work in the public schools.

Luke said the vision is to build teacher housing on the top floor while the bottom floor will be the pre-K classrooms. She said she hopes that building preschools at the high schools will encourage students to consider careers as a preschool teacher.

A Senate bill aims to build teacher housing on Oahu. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2019)

Meanwhile, the qualifications of preschool teachers vary in each state. 

Oklahoma and California require teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, while Florida, which also offers universal pre-K, does not make it a requirement.  

Hawaii educators will need bachelor’s degrees to teach preschoolers. They’ll also need teaching credentials. 

Neville-Morgan, from California, said building a pipeline at community colleges and universities will be essential to building the workforce of preschool teachers in Hawaii.

Luke said the state is already doing so by talking with the University of Hawaii and Chaminade University about changing the school curriculum for students — offering one major degree focusing from pre-K to third grade in place of a double major.

“This will allow students interested in becoming preschool teachers to have a dedicated degree,” Luke said. 

Full Day Vs. Half Day

Hawaii’s plan is to offer a full day of preschool, according to Luke, who added that it may be from 8 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. 

Ellen Frede, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said while Florida has one of the oldest pre-K programs in the nation it only offers two hours a day, and teachers don’t need to attain a bachelor’s degree or a certification in early childhood education.

“It’s woefully inadequate in terms of funding and hours,” Frede said. “It’s universal, but it’s not funded robustly and it’s not as strong a program as other states.”

Frede also said that Oklahoma’s universal pre-K must offer a half-day program, although most districts offer full days. 

The problem is half-day programs don’t mesh with working families.  

“Working families who need full-day child care coverage, it’s a huge challenge,” Jenkins said. 

Jenkins said Irvine still has a half-day kindergarten and only offers three hours of preschool.  

Communication Is Key

Neville-Morgan said the one thing she wished she had known back at the start is how critical a communications campaign is for getting the word out. 

Luke said there are plans underway in Hawaii to build an outreach center that will also help families access subsidies.

“We’ve heard anecdotal situations from other states where they built preschools and there were no kids enrolled because they didn’t do outreach,” Luke said. “The good thing about us doing this initiative while other states have struggled through their preschool expansion is to learn from those and try to incorporate some of the challenges and progress they made.”

Luke said she will be looking at translating universal pre-K information to include languages for the immigrant population.

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

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