Plan offers preschool for all isle 4-year-olds
Hawaii lags behind the national average in getting 4-year-olds some early education
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In 10 years, every 4-year-old in Hawaii will have access to a good preschool under a proposal sent to state lawmakers.
The ambitious plan -- whose cost would balloon from about $10.5 million to $170.4 million in a decade -- is being touted as a way to prevent kids from falling behind in kindergarten.
Advocates say preschool programs are spreading across the country. They add that research has shown early education leads to higher student achievement throughout school and eventually saves the state money as graduates land better jobs and stay out of trouble.
"That's the ultimate investment. Initially, you see it as getting kids ready for school," said Bob Peters, head of the private Hanahau'oli School in Honolulu and member of a group that drafted the proposal.
The Early Learning Educational Task Force says a good part of the money needed to kick-start the envisioned system would train and pay teachers to create quality programs and increase subsidies for families that can't qualify for help or pay preschool tuition.
Similar 4-year-old preschool initiatives were adopted by 36 states, according to the group.
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Eager to join a growing national movement, advocates for early education will ask state lawmakers next year for about $10.5 million to launch an ambitious project to offer affordable, quality preschool for all 4-year-olds in Hawaii.
The money would establish a voluntary Early Learning Program projected to draw more than 12,000 children when it is completed in a decade.
The goal is to better prepare kids for kindergarten and get parents involved in their education early on, with hopes of raising overall student achievement and reducing problems like poverty and crime.
"If we can create a more productive work force, then the end result is going to be that those issues will be addressed effectively as well," said Bob Peters, head of the private Hanahau'oli Elementary School in Honolulu. "We are counting on the legislators to look at the now and the future together, and not strictly at the immediate problems."
Nationally, about 65 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in some type of preschool in 2005, up from 16 percent in 1965, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Hawaii, four in 10 children enter the public school system without preschool experience, which advocates say causes them to fall behind and require extra help.
The argument that early education makes financial sense -- studies show it can save as much as $7 for every $1 spent -- will be key in selling the state a program estimated to cost $170.4 million a year when fully operational, dwarfing the current $8.3 million invested.
Taxpayers would cover 80 percent of expenses, and the rest would be privately backed, according to a report by the Early Learning Educational Task Force. The group was created through state law last year to draft a road map for preschool access for all children up to age 5, beginning with 4-year-olds.
Hawaii's proposal also could potentially benefit from a bill drafted by U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono that would set aside $1 billion in federal funds each year to support state efforts in early education.
"It sounds like the very kind of plan that would qualify for grants," said Hirono, D-Hawaii. "I think we are all moving in a parallel way."
Hirono, who originally proposed the measure as an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Law, said she will reintroduce it separately, since President Bush's signature education mandate failed to gain reauthorization this year.
Barriers to bring Hawaii up to speed with states like Georgia and Oklahoma, which offer universal preschool, include a shortage of teachers and good programs, according to the Early Learning group.
Only 61 percent of 510 teachers working with 4-year-olds in the state have a bachelor's degree, and just 22 percent of licensed preschools here are nationally accredited, according to the report.
Salary appears to be the root of the shortage, with preschool teachers getting $24,000 a year on average.
"Unless we have the compensation that matches the qualifications, we are soon going to have trouble getting students to stay," said Elaine Yamashita, program coordinator for early childhood education at Maui Community College. "I have students that graduate from my associate's program and then they go work as a concierge in hotels."
State Rep. Roy Takumi, House Education Committee chairman, said funding the proposal would be "a big commitment." He said state support for the envisioned system would have to grow as the population increases.
"But from an educational point of view, from an economic point of view, and for our future, I cannot think of a greater investment," he said.
Gov. Linda Lingle, who released an additional $5.5 million in state money in both the current and past year to expand early education in addition to federal money for incentives, supports the plan, especially because it would let parents choose from different programs, said her policy adviser, Linda Smith.
Parents interested in enrolling their children would be able to drop them off, join them at a preschool or even have a licensed teacher come to their home, said Kathy Murphy, executive director of the Hawaii Association for the Education of Young Children.
Subsidies also would be available for scores of families in the so-called "gap group," meaning they don't make enough to pay for preschool but also can't qualify for aid. Tuition for wealthier families, meanwhile, would not be set beyond reach, said Dee Jay Mailer, chief executive officer for Kamehameha Schools.
"If parents have the ability to pay, they should be able to pay at a limit that they can afford," she said.
The Board of Education welcomes that approach, said member Denise Matsumoto.
"I think it is very responsible," she said. "Instead of just having it be another completely taxpayer-supported program -- because that's one of the things that would keep it from ever getting off the ground."