Voters will decide next year whether Hawaii’s constitution should be amended to let the state use public money for private preschool.

A supermajority of the House and Senate on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 1084, which puts the question on the November 2014 ballot. The decision came after almost an hour of debate on the House floor in the evening and passionate speeches in the Senate in the afternoon.

Senate Education Chair Jill Tokuda worked with her House counterpart, Rep. Roy Takumi, to pass the bill over the objections of the Hawaii State Teachers Association that sees it as a voucher program and religious institutions worried about losing business.

“If you or a loved one have had the benefit of a preschool education, it was because a private provider gave it to you,” Tokuda said in her floor speech after negating arguments against the bill. “For decades, they have shouldered the burden and responsibility of educating our youngest children alone. This constitutional amendment would allow government to step up to the plate and partner with the private sector as we seek to prepare our children to succeed in both school and life.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie watched her speak from his seat in the gallery, blowing her a kiss after the Senate passed the bill. Creating a publicly funded preschool program for all 18,000 4-year-olds in the state was his top legislative priority this session.

The passage of the constitutional amendment bill — along with Senate Bill 1093, which establishes a more robust school readiness program — were critical components of the overall effort to reform Hawaii’s early education system.

The legislation provides $7.16 million over the biennium to expand the Preschool Open Doors program under the Department of Human Services. The funding is expected to serve more than 900 kids.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie listens to the Senate floor discussion on early education, April 30, 2013.

The governor had requested roughly $30 million to accommodate some 3,500 late-born 4-year-olds who won’t be able to attend kindergarten next year because the Legislature changed the entry age. He called the passage of SB 1093 a good start.

Another key piece of the early education package, Senate Bill 1095, was shelved Friday until next year’s session. It provides the enabling legislation for the constitutional amendment, should voters approve it.

The early childhood education program that would be implemented in 2016 through the amendment and SB 1095 is expected to serve 3- and 4-year-old children, with priority to the older kids.

The governor says it would be delivered through contracts with private early childhood education providers and the Department of Education that meet quality standards established by the Executive Office on Early Learning, which the Legislature created last year.

HSTA argued that the state should require mandatory kindergarten before getting ahead of itself and focusing on preschool.

Tokuda refuted this by pointing out that roughly 98 percent of eligible kids attend kindergarten in Hawaii.

She also rejected the union’s claim — which some lawmakers echoed — that it’s a voucher program. She said it lacks the fundamental characteristic of such a system: absolute parental choice.

And Tokuda shot down the concern from religious institutions by saying it’s a voluntary program that allows faith-based preschool providers to either continue operating separate and apart from the program or participate utilizing best practice models from other states and the federal government that safeguard against entanglement issues.

The Hawaii Catholic Conference and Hawaii Catholic Schools testified last month that they support the intent of SB 1084, but have serious concerns over its implementation and believe a voucher program may be a better plan.

“Our biggest concern is the unanswered question: Will the plan, if enacted, set up a system whereby private schools that choose to participate directly compete with those who cannot for philosophical reasons?” Walter Yoshimitsu and Michael Rockers, the heads of the two groups, said in their joint testimony. “If that becomes the case, will faith-based private schools that already provide a great service to the children and families of our communities have to close their doors?”

After hearing comments from Rep. Bob McDermott, who was concerned the bill will hurt Catholic schools, Rep. Chris Lee said the state can’t put a price on a child’s education.

“This is not a perfect measure … but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Lee said.

Rep. Takashi Ohno said the state can’t afford to wait.

“It’s a worthy question to put before our people,” he said.

House Speaker Joe Souki said the early learning system will be a major program that will benefit the people of the state. He said it won’t be a “free lunch” and encouraged the 51 representatives to support the bill; 14 ended up voting against it.

Only four of the 25 senators voted against SB 1084. Sen. Sam Slom was among them, saying the bill is not about the keiki.

“This is not about education,” he said. “This is about funding a subsidy.”

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Reps. Roy Takumi and Cindy Evans.

Several senators, including Ron Kouchi and Michelle Kidani, were careful to stress that while they support SB 1084, they do not support a school voucher program.

In another major step in Hawaii’s education evolution, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 237 to let the state develop up to three DOE properties through private partnerships. The goal is to make money off underutilized land to help finance 21st Century schools to replace or rebuild aging facilities.

The bill was a compromise that House and Senate lawmakers — namely Tokuda and Rep. Cindy Evans — hammered out just before an internal legislative deadline Friday. Click here to read past Civil Beat coverage of the deal that the full Legislature went on to approve.

Visit to see what lawmakers supported which bills in their final votes Tuesday. The legislative session ends Thursday.

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