Hawaii to make universal preschool available for children ages 3 to 4 within 10 years

Hawaii put forward a plan Tuesday to make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds by 2032, which if successful would put the state in a rarified group of states managing to provide pre-kindergarten education to most of its children.

Hawaii’s leaders have aspired to universal pre-K for decades but have found it elusive. A recent analysis found the state was moving so slowly toward that goal that it would take 47 years to build all the public preschool capacity Hawaii needed. The state expects it will need 465 new classrooms to serve the additional students.

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who has been tasked by Gov. Josh Green to lead the state’s efforts, said only half of Hawaii’s 35,000 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool, either by paying expensive tuition for private schools or obtaining one of the few spots in publicly-funded pre-K programs.

The state estimates there are about 9,200 children whose parents want to send them to preschool but aren’t able. It’s targeting its plans at this group.

‘It’s clear about the difference in educational outcomes from a child who goes to pre-K and one that doesn’t,’ Senate President Ron Kouchi said at a news conference announcing the plan.

‘To be able to help our educational outcomes while keeping more money into the working families pockets to take care of all of their needs is a real critical component.’

His colleague Sen. Michelle Kidani echoed this point, noting that many families are leaving Hawaii for other states because they can’t afford preschool or daycare in the islands.

The state plans to have 80 new classrooms ready for use in 2024, each of them serving 20 students.

Hawaii has already identified 50 classrooms at existing public elementary schools and 30 in publicly funded charter schools that it can renovate for use. Luke said converting one existing classroom would cost about $1 million, given that new bathrooms, sinks, chairs and tables need to be installed for smaller children.

The state will draw on $200 million the Legislature appropriated last year to build preschool classrooms.

About 20% of 3- and-4-year-olds (some 7,000 children) are from families that don’t want to send their children to preschool, Luke said. The state is not expecting them to take advantage of this program though Luke said this percentage may change depending on how successfully the state builds new capacity.

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University said that nationally, 39% of 4-year-olds are either in preschool, Head Start or other early childhood education. The District of Columbia and six states had 70% of their 4-year-old populations in preschool before the coronavirus pandemic hit: Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin.

G.G. Weisenfeld, senior early childhood education policy specialist at the institute, said the challenge for many states is to offer both high-quality preschool and to make it accessible to large numbers of children.

She said Hawaii is notable for its high quality, with its existing publicly funded preschool ranking among just five programs nationwide that meet all 10 minimum quality standards set by her research institute. The other four are Alabama, Michigan’s Great Start Readiness Program, Mississippi and Rhode Island.

Some states serve lots of children but only offer two hours of class per day, have larger class sizes with 30 children, have unqualified teachers or lack a curriculum, she said.

‘And so if you have a low quality program, even if you’re serving lots of children, you’re not going to get the impact or the child outcomes that we know that you can achieve in a high quality program,’ Weisenfeld said.

Weisenfeld, who was the director of Hawaii’s Executive Office on Early Learning in 2013-2014, commended Luke, Hawaii’s current lieutenant governor and a former state representative who used to chair the state House Finance Committee, for bringing the plan together.

‘One of the hardest things to make it happen is political will. I think Alabama has been so successful because of the leadership of the governor. I think that’s happening in Hawaii,’ she said. ‘I think Sylvia Luke has definitely taken this on and she’s incredibly smart and will make it happen.’

Jacqueline Ornellas, a principal at Lincoln Elementary School in Honolulu, is scheduled to have one of its existing classrooms renovated to accommodate younger children.

She said currently 60-70% of Lincoln’s students haven’t been able to go to preschool because their families couldn’t afford the cost. She said Lincoln’s teachers do a great job getting students caught up to grade level but she’s seen firsthand the difference preschool makes in a child’s academics.

‘That’s what our community is going to have — that opportunity to make the kids more successful,’ Ornellas said.

Angela Thomas, the early childhood resource coordinator for Hawaii County, said kindergarten teachers build on the exposure to vocabulary and reading that children have earlier in life. She called the state’s plan was ‘game-changing’ for the Big Island.

‘Our kids don’t do very well in reading in third grade. Our scores are not that great islandwide. And so having more early childhood opportunities for children is going to be really exciting,’ she said.

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