Proposals to increase preschool attendance and stabilize child care centers are receiving the most attention in this legislative session.

When Michelle Rocca started searching for child care for her newborn son in 2019, she was surprised to find that there were only two state-licensed providers in her central Honolulu neighborhood, and both of them had months-long waitlists.

Rocca said it was a “white knuckle” experience scrambling to find a place to leave her son so she could return to work when he was 6 months old — a common experience for parents in Hawaii, where there are roughly four times as many children under the age of 5 as there are child care seats.

Helping working parents like Rocca — whose husband stays home now to take care of their son after preschool ends at 1:30 p.m. — has been a priority for education advocates and lawmakers during this legislative session.

playing room of a school for kids without people
Child care providers in Hawaii struggle to retain workers and staff existing classrooms. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The biggest proposals moving forward in the Legislature center around Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke’s push to increase preschool access. Lawmakers are also advancing a bill that would supplement the paychecks of private infant and toddler care workers, another to expand funding for afterschool programs and a bill to make it easier and less expensive for child care providers to obtain state certification. 

The bill to increase the pay of child and infant care workers garnered 90 pages of supportive testimony last month.

“We have a dire shortage of of child care workers and in particular in our infant toddler programs,” said Vivian Eto of Hawaii Early Childhood Action Strategy. “If you speak to infant toddler directors, they’ll talk to you about waiting lists and an inability to staff existing classrooms.”

The momentum to address the needs of the state’s youngest children stands out in what has otherwise been a fairly unremarkable legislative session for education reform. 

Addressing Major Pay Problems

Workers at child care centers that serve infants and toddlers in Hawaii make an average of $13 to $17 an hour, about on par with the pay rates at fast food restaurants in the state, Eto said. 

To address the low wages and help stabilize the availability of child care spaces, lawmakers are weighing a pilot program to increase the pay of about 500 workers by $3 an hour. 

Other states, including Tennessee and North Carolina, provide wage supplements to address child care worker retention. Participants in the North Carolina wage supplement program had a turnover rate of 13%, Eto said — about three times lower than organizations that didn’t participate. 

“It’s a two-year pilot program that we’re proposing,” said Keopu Reelitz, director of early learning and health policy at the Hawaii Children’s Action Network. “After that two-year pilot program, hopefully we’ll have learned a lot of lessons.”

Stabilizing the existing child care workforce is also critical to Hawaii’s efforts to rapidly expand preschool access in the next decade.

“To prepare for this expansion, we must focus on rebuilding and retaining the existing workforce,” Hawaii Children’s Action Network said in written testimony in support of the bill.  “We want to be sure that when classrooms are built, there are enough teachers to fill them.”

Current proposals to create universal free preschool in Hawaii by 2032 call for a mix of public and private classrooms. Private preschool providers need to go through an extensive certification and accreditation process, which can be both costly and time-consuming. Another proposal moving forward this session would make that process easier by providing administrative and financial support to providers seeking accreditation.

Reducing Vaping, Increasing Internships

The Hawaii State Teachers Association said it didn’t have many major financial requests to lawmakers this year, having secured a huge win last session with a bill to adjust the payscale of thousands of teachers. 

Several proposals to create teacher housing would come with a significant financial investment from the state, however. One bill would allocate $185 million to create teacher housing in three areas of Oahu highly impacted by housing shortages. Another would allocate $15 million for a pilot housing program on Maui.

One focus from the union has been on student vaping. Several proposals to regulate electronic cigarettes failed to move forward this session, but HSTA is hopeful that a plan to tax the devices at the same rate as other tobacco products will make it through the Legislature.

Hawaii’s high cost of living was the focus of several education proposals that failed to move forward this session, including one that would have given a tax credit to businesses that provide internships to high school students to help ready them for more financially lucrative careers. 

“Overall, I think this was a difficult year for tax credit bills,” said David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN, adding that he thinks there is solid interest in incentivizing work-based learning for students. “We are exploring a wide range of options moving forward, including reorganizing the structure of the bill as a grant program.”

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