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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Low-income parents support plans to subsidize preschool for more kids

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Heide De Anda's 4-year-old son, Andrew, started classes at a Kapalama preschool just last September, but she is already seeing a difference.

A state subsidy allows Heide de Anda and her husband to send their 4-year-old son, Andrew, to KCAA's Laura Morgan Pre-School in Kapalama.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Her son seems more comfortable around other children, more willing to share. His exposure to the teachers and environment at KCAA's Laura Morgan Pre-School will make the step to kindergarten much easier. But De Anda and her husband, who works at City Mill, could not afford preschool without a state subsidy for low-income parents.

"At home, I can teach him what I know," she said, "but it's not the same as having the teachers. This really helps us."

Gov. Linda Lingle and state lawmakers want to give low- and middle-income parents like De Anda more opportunities to send their children to a quality preschool. While the state is not prepared to guarantee universal access to preschool, as some educators want, lawmakers will likely make a significant investment in early childhood education this session.

Educators say children who do not attend preschool are often behind when they start kindergarten, which can contribute to academic and disciplinary problems. More than half of Hawai'i's 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool, according to the Good Beginnings Alliance, but about a fourth of low-income students eligible for subsidies are among those who miss out.

The challenges have been money, access and quality. Many preschools are at or near capacity and some, like the Laura Morgan Pre-School, have waiting lists. Preschool administrators are confident they could add capacity quickly if the state makes a commitment of new money, possibly as early as next fall.

Laura Morgan Pre-School teacher Teresa Kono asks her students what they expect to see when they go on a field trip to a supermarket.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

But some lawmakers are hesitant about too large an investment until there is more information available to parents about preschool quality. Only about 20 percent of the state's preschools are accredited, and lawmakers do not want to see parents rushing to inexperienced providers who may focus more on day care than education.

Parents say there is demand. "I think people would take advantage of it, because preschool is not cheap," said Jessica Victorino, an accounting clerk with Aloha Airlines who receives a state preschool subsidy.

On Monday, in her State of the State speech, Lingle proposed an increase in spending on the state's Open Doors program from $3 million to $8 million a year. The program now provides subsidies for about 700 4-year-olds to attend preschool, and the $5 million increase would cover an another 1,000 children. The governor would also raise income limits on Open Doors so more middle-class parents would qualify for aid.

Lingle would use $20 million in federal welfare money to expand preschool access and provide incentives to preschools to adopt content standards and hire qualified staff. The federal money would be targeted at working parents and, eventually, could help the state offer childcare or preschool to an additional 2,000 3- and 4-year-olds.

Angelyn Aris, left, and her Laura Morgan classmates develop their art skills at the Kapalama preschool, which has a waiting list for students. About 20 percent of the state's preschools are accredited, and Laura Morgan is one of them.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

"We were concerned that there were going to be brick-and-mortar issues. But preschools convinced us that there should be enough available space," said Lillian Koller, director of the state Department of Human Services, which oversees Open Doors.

Some lawmakers have proposed an $8 million spending increase for Open Doors — to $11 million a year — which would cover about 1,500 additional children. Some also want a $2 million pilot program that would study how the state could offer universal preschool, which educators have said would cost as much as $60 million.

"We already know that when we invest in the early years of life that it really makes a difference," said Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), the chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee.

House and Senate leaders also are considering more conservative steps.

Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), would possibly enlarge the pool of students eligible for the state's new junior kindergarten by gradually moving back the Aug. 1 deadline for 5-year-olds to start traditional kindergarten classes.

The new junior kindergarten classes, designed to give an extra school year to children too young or unprepared for kindergarten, are not scheduled to begin until 2006.

Four-year-old Kamren Victorino-Kato shows his mother, Jessica Victorino, stamps on his arms awarded for a job well-done in class.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

Sakamoto, the chairman of the Senate Education and Military Affairs Committee, would also provide more training for preschool staff and urge the state Department of Education to identify more classrooms that may be used for preschool.

Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Palisades), the chairman of the House Education Committee, wants a pilot study on developing a four-star rating system for preschool quality so parents could make more intelligent choices. "If we don't do something on quality," he said, "I'm reluctant to move forward on accessibility."

Educators who favor universal preschool have not been very aggressive with the Legislature because of its high price tag, but with the governor and lawmakers open to new spending this session because of the state's strong economy, they believe that expanding access is possible.

"It's probably the best investment a state can make," said Liz Chun, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.