The decision raises hopes that Hawaii can boost the number of children participating in the Open Doors program from about 1,200 to about 4,000.

House and Senate negotiators agreed Wednesday on a plan to make thousands of additional preschool slots available to children from low-income families, a measure that one lawmaker said is “probably the most important bill for the 2023 session.”

House Bill 961 would also significantly increase the per-child state subsidy for youngsters enrolled in the Open Doors program, a step that will help support both the preschools and young families struggling with Hawaii’s high cost of living.

House Human Services Chairman John Mizuno said the bill will allow single parents and low-income couples with small children to work full time. “It helps them get ahead,” he said.

Members of House and Senate conference committees meet to finalize House Bill 961, which would expand the Open Doors program to serve 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds from low-income families. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Open Doors currently gives priority to 4-year-olds who are a year away from enrolling in kindergarten, but HB 961 mandates that 3-year-olds also be prioritized. Nearly $39 million to expand Open Doors was included in the new state budget lawmakers finalized on Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who wants Hawaii to provide universal preschool access over the next decade, said the extra money will increase the state subsidy for the Open Doors program from $12 million per year to $50 million.

“That will take care of a lot more families,” she said. Supporters hope the extra state money will qualify the program for extra federal funding as well, and they aim to increase the number of small children who can participate from about 1,400 per year to about 4,000.

Experts say young children who attend preschool are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don’t, and preschool is often most beneficial to poor and disadvantaged children.

About half of Hawaii’s young children are not attending preschool because their families cannot afford it, “so this will go a long way in taking care of the unmet need in our state,” Luke said.

Subsidies for the preschools that serve children in the Open Doors program will increase from an average of $900 per child per month to $1,500, she said.

The measure now advances to final votes in the House and the Senate.

Mizuno said he does not expect the larger community will grasp the importance of the bill until years from now.

“This is probably the most important bill for the 2023 session,” he said. “I think this is a win. It’s an investment in people and the economy.”

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

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