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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 23, 2006

Preschool report preceded $5M plan

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

Hawai'i sits in the middle of the pack in providing access to and quality preschool for low-income 4-year-olds but meets only four of 10 quality standards for its preschool teachers, according to a new national survey.

The 2005 annual State of Preschool report conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research, ranks states on quality standards, funding and access to state preschool programs.

But data used in the report fail to take into consideration a major new early childhood education initiative undertaken by Gov. Linda Lingle that this year increases by $5 million state funding to subsidize preschool for low- and some middleincome children, as well as offering new incentives to preschools to expand their size and quality, and the training of their teachers.

As such, the report doesn't recognize major changes under way in Hawai'i's support of early childhood education, which also expects to increase the number of slots available both in preschools and community-based programs in the next few years.

"We're trying to achieve access to quality early childhood education for all children to get the best start when they enter kindergarten," said Lillian Koller, director of the State Department of Human Services which is responsible for much of the oversight of the new programs.

"We're trying to reach more gap families, so we've increased the eligibility, we're doing outreach and we raised the rates we pay."

In the new report, Hawai'i ranked 28th in the nation for access to preschool for 4-year-olds, based on 2004-05 data; 22nd for access to preschool for 3-year-olds; and 15th for the level of spending per child.

"Clearly Hawai'i has a lot of children who could benefit from increased access to preschool and the state taxpayers could benefit because of all the problems that can be prevented," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the New Jersey-based institute.

"Investing in preschool is the most cost-effective way to address problems such as concern about dropout rates and school failure and the development of a quality work force. It's much easier to ensure kids are prepared for school than to rescue them after they're failing."

Under the new state initiative, the additional money from Lingle brings to $8.3 million the amount the state has allotted to help families pay for preschool for their children, with the hope of bringing as many as 1,000 more children into preschool by the end of the 2005-06 fiscal year.

Last year about 1,000 young students were subsidized to attend preschool through the Preschool Open Doors program, but that number has increased by about 400 children as the new initiative gets under way, with the hope that 300 more will be added by fall.

The Department of Human Services has identified another 9,700 children from eligible families that could be receiving the state assistance, said Michele Takeuchi, director of the state-subsidized Preschool Open Doors program, and letters were mailed to all those families.

Overall, a variety of state and federal subsidy programs are helping families pay for preschool for 8,260 3- and 4-year-olds who fall into the low-income category. These include state subsidies such as the Preschool Open Doors program, and federal help such as Childcare Connection Hawai'i paid for by a federal block grant, and programs such as Head Start.

But the numbers of low-income children getting help is still only half the number eligible, said Liz Chun, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance.

"We need to invest more state dollars in early education," said Chun.

Overall, a little less than half of Hawai'i's approximately 16,500 to 17,000 4-year-olds attend preschool about the same as the number of spaces available.

The other issue facing the state is finding more facilities and more teachers.

Koller estimates the state could use another 2,000 to 3,000 preschool slots and her department is taking steps to build capacity, including offering incentives to preschools to serve low-income children, as well as offering incentives to bring in more aides at the bottom level and increase their training.

"We met with providers a number of times and asked them, 'Can you build it if we come to the table with more money to subsidize the children?' " said Koller. Kama'aina Kids, alone, committed to providing 550 more slots, she said.

"What the department has tried to do," explained DHS program specialist Ethel Fleming, "is create more use of available spaces. For instance a preschool may have four classrooms that could be totally full, but they may only be using three because they can't find qualified staff."

When rules are finalized, the department will be able to offer payments retroactive to October to preschools who fit the qualifications. For every low-income child served a preschool will receive a one-time payment of $75 per child per month for the intervening time. Payments will also be made to schools whose staff are involved in teacher training.

"What we expect preschools to do with this money is to spend it on quality things such as increasing teacher pay," said Fleming. "Or hiring more staff if they can find them."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.