Task force proposes universal preschool
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
In an idea they believe will move Hawai'i closer to universal preschool for 4-year-olds, several leading educators and childcare advocates have recommended the state Legislature create a new authority that would make policy for and direct early-childhood education statewide.
The Early Learning Authority would be governed by a public and private board and could oversee as much as $160 million in state spending after a decade. It would help guide the work of a new institute to promote the training of preschool teachers and providers. A new nonprofit group would assist the authority with planning and early-learning districts on each major island.
"If Hawai'i does this, it will put us on the cutting edge of the country," said Randy Hitz, the dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.
The recommendation, from a task force established last year by the Legislature, presents some thorny issues.
The task force did not specifically address, as state lawmakers wanted, the immediate need to give parents greater access to quality preschool. Instead, it proposed a new layer of government that could take years to gel and could control policy decisions normally handled by lawmakers and the governor.
The initial response at the state Capitol has been less than enthusiastic.
"I think something is going to happen, but I don't know if it's going to be that," said state Rep. Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City, Palisades), the chairman of the House Education Committee. "Clearly, there is a lot more work that needs to be done."
Other lawmakers said the recommendation reflects a reality that many in the early-childhood education community have often been slow to acknowledge publicly. Even if the Legislature immediately provided the $60 million to $75 million necessary for universal preschool, the state's preschools do not have nearly the capacity or enough qualified teachers to cover the children.
"I think, by next year, they'll be able to ask for a significant amount of money for our early learners. But they haven't reached an agreement on certain standards," said state Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu). Chun-Oakland, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee, served on the task force and is supportive of its work.
ROADBLOCKS TO GROWTH
Expanding access to preschool has been a goal of many educators in the Islands for years, but state lawmakers have been concerned about high costs and a lack of quality control. In September 2004, educators held a School Readiness Summit that was the product of more than two years of work by a previous task force that looked at several early-education initiatives.
Last year, Gov. Linda Lingle directed an extra $5 million to provide preschool to as many as 1,000 low- and middle-income children, while lawmakers created the task force to study different options.
More than half of 3- and 4-year-olds in Hawai'i go to preschool. School readiness asssessments have found that about 40 percent of children who enter public schools at kindergarten are not prepared, suggesting that children who do not attend preschool start behind the children who do.
As of November, there were about 660 vacancies at the 384 licensed preschools statewide, according to PATCH, a childcare research and referral agency. Vacancies would jump to nearly 1,950 if the schools were to use their full licensed capacity, but availability is usually measured by desired capacity.
Many in the early-childhood education community said last year that because of strong parent demand, preschools would be able to expand capacity quickly once new state money became available.
Lingle's decision to add $5 million to the state's Open Doors preschool subsidy program has shown the constraints of rapid expansion. The money tech-nically was available to parents in July, at the start of the fiscal year, but the typical enrollment period for this school year had ended. The Lingle administration re-opened enrollment for Open Doors in October and raised income eligibility limits in November so more middle-income parents would qualify.
The administration is finalizing new administrative rules so preschools would get paid more money for accepting Open Doors children as a financial incentive for the schools to build capacity and improve teacher quality.
Linda Smith, the governor's senior policy adviser, said the administration has received positive feedback from preschools. Smith said she had not seen the task force recommendations but would want to hear why a new authority is needed.
"We'd really want to take a look at why they feel the authority is necessary," she said.
QUALITY CONTROL NEEDED
Market forces have influenced access from the beginning, as many parents who have shopped for preschool know. Licensed preschools, much like other public and private schools, vary in quality and curriculum. Some schools have vacancies, while others have waiting lists, because some parents would rather hold out for the school of their choice or schools closer to their homes or jobs.
Some lawmakers do not want to invest millions in state money in private preschools without safeguards that assure quality and accountability.
On the other side, ideas from the Legislature, such as gradually expanding the Pre-Plus or junior kindergarten programs at public schools so more 4-year-olds are covered, have not been eagerly embraced by the early-childhood education community because it might freeze out the private sector.
Hitz, of the University of Hawai'i and a member of the task force, said a new authority would coordinate public and private programs that meet the educational, health and nutritional needs of young children. Innovative ideas from the private sector, he said, would complement work by the state. "No one is minding the store when it comes to early education," Hitz said.
LAYERS OF SUPPORT
Along with proposing the authority, the task force recommended several other new groups and panels that would create a substantial early-child-hood education infrastructure statewide.
A Workforce and Professional Development Institute would work on training and salary issues. A nonprofit would provide technical assistance to the authority. Early Learning Districts, with Early Learning Councils, would be active on each island. A blue-ribbon task force would study sustainable financing. A media advisory group would help shape a statewide public-relations campaign.
After a decade, state spending on early childhood education would reach $160 million annually, with about half going directly to provide quality preschool for all 4-year-olds who want to attend.
"The reason this has not happened before is that there has been no place for it," Liz Chun, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance and a member of the task force, said of the need for the authority. "And it can't be done on a penny."
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.