Take strides to expand preschool as part of education
A legislative task force is recommending a large increase in funding preschool programs.
Universal preschool has become an ingredient in the presidential campaign, and a task force assigned by the Legislature to study the issue is recommending a major step toward that goal. The proposal should be enacted with the ultimate goal of integrating preschool into the school system.
Studies have shown that 85 percent of a child's development occurs before 5 years of age. Those who have experienced preschool before that threshold are more likely to do well in school.
About 61 percent of Hawaii's children entering public and private kindergarten schools this year had preschool experience, according to the Early Learning Educational Task Force. Most of those children are from families who can afford the $500 a month or more in tuition or from low-income families who qualify for government subsidies.
President Bush signed a law two weeks ago that raises a family's wage eligibility ceiling to 130 percent from 100 percent of the poverty level. However, that is not likely to eliminate the gap of middle-class families who cannot afford to pay the tuition and whose income remains above the eligibility ceiling.
The task force is asking that the Legislature add $10.5 million to the current $8.3 million spent on preschool programs for 4-year-olds during the first year, reaching $170.4 million annually after five years, when it is scheduled to be fully operational. Private sources would fund 20 percent of the cost.
That might seem like a lot, but it is less than that needed to pay the way through the criminal justice system for those denied preschool experience. "I'd much rather guarantee all kids a place at circle time in a high-quality preschool than see some of them serve hard time in prison later in life," said Sutter County, Calif., Sheriff Jim Denney in support of universal preschool.
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono is proposing federal legislation to provide $1 billion to support such state efforts. As lieutenant governor during the Cayetano administration, Hirono created the Pre-Plus Program for preschool education for children from low-income families.
Nationally, at least 65 percent of 4-year-olds and 42 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in preschools, a dramatic increase from 1965, when only 16 percent of 4-year-olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds were in classrooms. Significantly, 62 percent of mothers of children under age 6 are in the labor force.
Eventually, what is now called preschool should become fully integrated into the public school system, growing from 12 years to 13 or even 14, beginning at age 3 or 4. This country has a responsibility to provide pre-college public education free of charge. That should include the year or two where education consists largely of care-taking and game-playing.