Hawaii’s blistering classrooms could soon see cooler days if state lawmakers decide to give public schools money this year for air conditioning, a rare commodity that’s lacking even in the hottest parts of the islands.

Legislators on the education committees expect classroom cooling to get some buzz during the upcoming legislative session, which kicks off Jan. 15. Both the governor and the Hawaii Department of Education have requested $25 million for air conditioning in their supplemental budget proposals, a sign that a grassroots Campbell High School-led campaign urging the state to relieve schools of their sizzling temperatures is paying off.

But AC, which ultimately could cost more than $1 billion if it were to be installed and maintained in all classrooms, is just one piece of what’s expected to be a larger conversation about school facilities. And some lawmakers say further research on cooling alternatives and needs for schools is in order before the state hands over the money for AC units.

Sen. Jill Tokuda hopes to scrap a controversial policy that has long barred charter schools from receiving money for their facilities, perhaps resolving a long-standing dilemma that has left some schools with tents for classrooms or plastic buckets for seats.

“While I know there have been some discussions lately about certain charter schools … there have been very substantive changes to their accountability and governance structures (as a whole),” Tokuda said, referring to a number of charter school scandals, the most recent of which involves an investigation by the Attorney General’s office into nepotism and fraud at Honolulu’s Myron B. Thompson Academy. “I think we’re ready to have some serious discussions about funding now.”

Other education issues are on this year’s legislative agenda, too. Deliberations over public preschool, which was Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s top priority last session, will resume, this time focusing on whether or not to set aside more money for a statewide early education system. That includes a plan to open up 32 pre-kindergarten classrooms on 30 public school campuses across the state. Last year’s Legislature granted just $6 million of the governor’s $31 million two-year request for preschool — money that’s being used this year to expand the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program.

That money will only open up seats for 900 or so under-served or at-risk children out of 5,100 kids total who are late-born and can’t enroll in kindergarten next school year because of an upcoming change to the age requirements. The program is a highly truncated version of the early learning system Abercrombie and other advocates envision: a broad patchwork of high-quality early education options, some of them involving existing private centers or DOE campuses while others using in-home family-based settings, whose tuition or cost the state would subsidize based on a family’s income level. Eventually, all the state’s 18,000 or so 4-year-olds would have access to publicly funded preschool.

But the governor’s request for preschool money, which totals $8 million and would be spread across several programs, isn’t nearly enough to create a seat for every kid who needs one, Tokuda said, stressing that she’s most concerned about working families that might not qualify for high-poverty options such as Head Start but struggle to afford preschool tuition, which on average costs $640 a month in Hawaii. About 2,400 children total would be served if all of the money is granted.

Rep. Takashi Ohno, vice chair of the House education committee, added that the initiative has faced an uphill battle amid an already-tight state budget. “Early education is different because … we have to stand this thing up on all fours, from nothing to something,” he said, adding that the scope of the proposed “mixed-delivery” program is largely in the hands of the finance committees.

In November, voters will be asked to decide whether to amend the Hawaii constitution to allow the state to use taxpayer money for private preschools — a question that will be placed on this year’s ballot thanks to a bill that passed last session. Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded preschool system, and almost every preschool in the state is private.

Rep. Roy Takumi, House Education Committee chair, said he anticipates “enabling legislation” that would clearly define the kind of public preschool system voters will be considering. Some lawmakers question whether voters need to first approve the amendment before the Legislature sets aside funding.

Abercrombie for his part is asking for $4.5 million to open pre-kindergarten classrooms on existing DOE campuses statewide, particularly rural areas where alternative preschool options are few and far between. The rest of the $8 million would go toward Preschool Open Doors and subsidies for “family-child interaction learning” providers, in which parents are the ones educating their preschool-age children.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association doesn’t like the idea of using taxpayer money for private preschool, arguing last session that the proposal is a voucher system and that the state should instead invest in its dollars in public education.

The teachers union has since shifted gears on its lobbying position, with fully funded, mandatory pre-kindergarten and kindergarten making the top spot of its 2014 legislative agenda. In Hawaii, like most other states, kindergarten isn’t required, a shortfall that the HSTA highlighted in its case against Abercrombie’s preschool initiative.

The Legislature is likely going to again consider whether to change that, according to education-committee lawmakers, who noted that the vast majority — 97 percent or so — of children already enroll in kindergarten even though it isn’t written into law. Lawmakers considered the same question several years ago but never took any action.

“It seems appropriate to discuss this in light of the efforts on early education,” said Takumi, who has been traveling and could only respond via email. “By making it mandatory, it indicates that as a state we believe that K-12 should be mandatory and that whatever pre-school system emerges will be voluntary.”

On the budget side, it remains to be seen whether the Legislature will give the DOE some fiscal slack after keeping a tight rein on the department over the past few years, in large part because of mismanagement in areas such as school bus transportation.

Lawmakers’ lack of confidence in DOE spending saw a number of casualties last year, including the DOE’s initiative to equip every student with a digital device. The Legislature gave the department just $8.2 million out of its $36.5 million digital materials request, resulting in a small-scale pilot at eight schools that has yet to be fully implemented.

Perhaps in a nod to lawmakers’ warnings, the department notably decided not to request any additional funding this year as it works on fine-tuning the test round. The governor, however, requested $600,000 to continue the digital device efforts.

Other priorities:

  • Ohno: Creating financial incentives for national board-certified teachers to work at high-needs schools
  • Ohno: Establishing a $150,000 “education innovation fund” available to teachers who, after being selected by their colleagues, can use the money to fund their ideas for reforming education. “I don’t want teachers doing bake sales anymore based on their ideas,” Ohno said.
  • Takumi: Clamping down on seclusion and restraint practices at public schools, including but not limited to those targeted at special-needs students.
  • Tokuda: Continued cleanup of the charter school law, whose overhaul last year created mechanisms for enhancing governance and accountability
  • Tokuda: Addressing the repair and maintenance backlog and coming up with a comprehensive assessment of school facilities needs and solutions across the state.

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