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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Early-childhood investment needed now

By Elisabeth Chun

In this new legislative session, we are offered a unique opportunity to commit to our children and our future by investing in the early education of our youngest citizens.

Both the governor and legislators agree we must increase access to quality early education and care. This is the chance to rewrite and redefine the social compact between government, parents and their children, and strengthen our unique sense of 'ohana.

As a state, we need to make major new investments in programs for young children. At a minimum, all 4-year-olds should have access to high quality early-childhood education.

As a society, we have yet to acknowledge and embrace early-childhood education as a public responsibility in the same way as elementary and secondary education. A free public education beginning at age 5 has long been an entitlement for every child in Hawai'i.

Yet we now know that the experiences children have before age 5 have a lasting impact on their capacity to be responsible, contributing members of society.

Just as Hawai'i deliberately created world-class kindergarten programs a century ago, we must now focus our attention on education and care for younger children.

Immediate families are and must be primarily responsible for the rearing of children. The notion that families were at one time self-sufficient is a myth. Families have always relied on extended-family members and members of the community to support their child rearing.

Today, many of these traditional family-support systems have broken down or are stretched beyond capacity by the realities of modern life. Too many young children live in poverty or in situations where the adults who care for them are overburdened by work and other responsibilities, or who simply lack the time or skills they need to be effective parents.

Early-childhood education programs have arisen over the years as a critical support to families rearing young.

For example, parent-education programs work directly with families; preschools, childcare centers and family childcare homes provide education and care while parents work or go to school; Head Start provides not only education but also medical, dental, nutrition and family-support services as well as adult education for families who live in poverty.

What these programs have in common is that they rely on a rudimentary patchwork of public and private monies.

Tinkering around the margins, we try to informally coordinate these efforts as best we can, but there is no Department of Early-Childhood Education, no one locus of public responsibility for what happens to children in their first five years.

In other words, there is no real system that ensures access to early education and helps families make sense of the array of options that are available to them. There is no commitment to systematically train, hire and retain qualified teachers, or to assess and improve the quality of early-education services.

Reaching our goal first requires that we help parents become well-informed so they understand child development and make sound decisions based upon their keiki's needs.

We must provide parents with options for care and education of their children. Parents must also be able to choose from and afford a range of high-quality options, from remaining at home to sending their child to Tutu, other family childcare or preschool.

Just as government agencies seek to strengthen industries such as tourism, early childhood ought to enjoy a state- and county-level infrastructure that sets quality standards, provides programs to meet those standards, and then holds programs accountable.

This system must have financial resources, statutory authority and transparency for its consumer-parents. We can and should build on the strengths of our existing early-childhood education programs by providing them with the resources and means to do their jobs with integrity while continuing to offer families the services that best suit their needs.

This early-childhood system must be thoughtfully connected to services from the health, safety, K-12 and higher education communities, and should allow all parents access to quality early-education and care programs.

Moreover, we must acknowledge the benefit to the community in ensuring that all children are given a good start in life.

Most industrialized countries have purposefully addressed this issue and provide family-support programs far superior to those in the United States. However, we have some good models in other states such as North Carolina, Illinois, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, where we can see the possibility of how quality assistance can be provided for young children and their families.

Focusing our attention on the early years requires hard choices. Today we have the opportunity to shift societal investments from reactive policies such as remedial education, welfare and prisons to proactive solutions that will increase access to quality early-childhood education.

And if not now, when?

Elisabeth Chun is executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance. This is another in a series of articles by educators addressing how we can best improve education in Hawai'i.