Hawaii lawmakers took historic steps forward Friday to develop school lands through private partnerships and establish a publicly funded early education system.

The legislation cleared a House and Senate conference committee with unanimous support, but still has to pass the full Legislature next week. The bills reflect significant compromises based on public wariness over land development in general and concerns over affordability during volatile economic times.

An estimated 900 kids will be able to take advantage of a more robust version of the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program starting next school year if Senate Bill 1093 goes on to become law, Senate Education Chair Jill Tokuda said.

“It’s going to be looking at making sure the providers do have school readiness assessments built in, something they haven’t had before, with of course the aim at making sure that the participants that go through the program — our youngest of keiki — are ready for kindergarten when they start school,” she said.

The committee appropriated $6 million in subsidies for fiscal year 2015 and $1.16 million for administrative costs over the biennium to pay for the school readiness program. DHS will determine the cost for participants based on a sliding fee scale.

Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige said the Department of Education in the 1990s embraced the concept that all students should enter kindergarten ready to learn. Twenty years later, he said this is the first time the state has put any money behind that.

Rep. Takashi Ohno, vice chair of the House Education Committee, said the passage of SB 1093 marks a great step forward.

“We’re really taking care of the neediest kids, the most vulnerable kids, the kids that are shown through studies to have the most to gain,” he said, adding that religious preschools would be covered too.

Supporters of the bill had wanted the school readiness program to accommodate all 3,500 late-born 4-year-olds who will need preschool services for the 2014-15 school year because the junior kindergarten program is being eliminated. Those affected kids will still have priority, but lawmakers recognize the demand will outpace the capacity.

Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said anything the state can do to prepare kids for school is going to help in the long run.

“The research is pretty solid that kids who come to kindergarten ready to learn are just that much further ahead, and the kids who don’t have those good experiences early are starting at a disadvantage,” she said.

The reporting requirements in the bill will gather information on geographic distribution, capacity needs and what the wait list looks like, Tokuda said. This information will be key as the state works to expand the early education system to all 18,000 4-year-olds.

A related bill that’s critical to pave the way for a full-blown publicly funded preschool program was shelved Friday. Senate Bill 1095 would have served as the enabling legislation for a proposed constitutional amendment to let the state use public money for private preschools.

But there’s always next year. The Legislature has the luxury of one more session to tweak SB 1095 given the timing of the constitutional amendment, Tokuda said.

Lawmakers were cautiously optimistic that the constitutional amendment bill would still pass. The bill to put the amendment on the 2014 ballot, Senate Bill 1084, faces an uncertain fate before the full House and Senate Tuesday. It needs two-thirds approval in both chambers to pass this session, or a majority this year and again next year.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has urged its 13,500 members to oppose the proposed amendment because the union sees it as a voucher program.

There has also been opposition from religious schools because they wouldn’t be able to proselytize in the classroom if they accepted the funding and could face other restrictions on how they could use the money.

Rep. Roy Takumi, who negotiated the final drafts of the early education bills with Tokuda, said even though the economy is improving, it’s still a difficult decision to expand preschool programs at this time.

The early ed bills are Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s top legislative priority. He said the conference committee’s passage of SB 1093 was a great start.

“The State of Hawaii can now demonstrate its commitment to preparing our youth by ensuring that high quality childcare and early education will be available, accessible and affordable,” he said in a statement Friday. “The priority will be to serve the low-income and some middle income families. We are pleased that the amount provided by the Legislature will allow us to serve the children with the highest need, those most at risk of not attending a preschool program.”

DOE Can Develop Up To 3 School Sites

Aside from taking a significant step toward establishing a publicly funded early education system, lawmakers on Friday also came to terms on a bill to develop school lands to help the state afford to fix its ailing inventory of educational facilities. But it wasn’t easy.

Tokuda and Rep. Cindy Evans negotiated the final version of the legislation throughout the day. The first hearing was held in the morning, but it had to be rescheduled later in the afternoon two more times because they couldn’t agree on how many projects the DOE should be allowed to develop as part of the pilot program.

Tokuda was firm on two projects, which she said was a reasonable number given the funding, time frame and the fact that this is the first time the department would be undergoing this endeavor.

Evans, however, wanted the DOE to be able to develop up to five projects. She said this would give it a better proof of concept.

The two lawmakers were also at odds over how long the department should have to complete the projects. Tokuda wanted to give the DOE five years to do the developments, whereas Evans didn’t want any time limit. They settled this difference early in the day with a compromise that gives the DOE five years to identify the sites and execute the leases, but doesn’t place a restriction on the timing of the construction itself.

After appearing to reach a stalemate over the number of projects, Tokuda conceded with 30 seconds to spare before the internal 6 p.m. deadline lawmakers had to approve bills. She agreed to Evans’ compromise at three projects.

Tokuda seemed a bit stung by the concession, but glad the bill didn’t die this session as a result of failing to reach an agreement.

“We want to see proof of concept. We want to see what would be required to take this kind of project to scale, what would be best practice,” Tokuda said after the hearing. “More importantly, we want to recognize that this needs to be something that the community accepts, that the community feels comfortable with because we definitely know that we’ve got to re-earn the trust when it comes to land development, especially in the area of public lands.”

Evans left the room with a smile on her face.

“You have to have enough projects to be able to work out the kinks, so I’m glad they moved from two to three,” she said.

Matayoshi said since the projects will be DOE’s responsibility, the top priority will still be the students and the schools. She said it’s important for everyone not to lose sight that the primary mission is teaching kids, not how much money the state can make.

The bill gives the DOE $200,000 over the next two years to help it hire the expertise necessary to develop the projects and do the community outreach that’s required.

“This is going to be foreign territory,” Matayoshi said. “We’re going to need to look outside and say, ‘How can we make sure that we have people who are knowledgable about how to engage communities in these kinds of projects, that can really understand what the school, the students, the teachers and principals need to really make a ‘21st Century’ school, which we have to define, and then how do you work with the private sector to make that happen. There’s lots of challenges ahead.”

The department, working with the Board of Education, will select up to five sites to develop. Matayoshi said none of the district’s 254 properties have been identified at this point.

“A lot of people have speculated about sites, but I really think that we’ve got to walk in with an open mind,” she said.

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