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Funding sought for program to improve state preschools


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POSTED: Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hawaii lawmakers want to preserve a project to expand preschool options by preventing its funding from being used to help plug the state's financial hole.

The Legislature, through Act 14, assigned an Early Learning Council last year to plan a voluntary preschool system supported by state and private funds. The council received $250,000, but about half of it is expected to be unspent by the end of fiscal year 2009 on June 30 and lumped into the state's general fund.

House Bill 395 calls for putting the money in a special trust to develop the preschool system. Backed by Kamehameha Schools and the state Education Department, the measure unanimously cleared the House Education Committee yesterday and moved to the Finance Committee.

Gov. Linda Lingle is fighting the idea, saying it would divert money from the state as it faces a $75 million shortfall in the current fiscal year.

“;Any amount would have an impact,”; said Lingle spokesman Russell Pang.

Officials said the administration would continue to support existing early-learning programs.

The proposed Keiki First Steps program is forecast to cost the state roughly $10.5 million in its first year. Most of that money would go to train and recruit teachers. Supporters envision the program evolving into a $170.4 million undertaking that would draw 80 percent of eligible 4-year-olds in a decade, according to initial calculations. It would target disadvantaged families first and widen to cover younger children.

Proponents argue that four in every 10 children in Hawaii enter the public school system without attending preschool, causing them to immediately fall behind and require extra help. Research shows children who attend preschool are less likely to drop out of high school, become teenage parents or commit crimes, saving states about $7 for every $1 invested in early education, they say.

Early Learning Council Chairman Robert Peters said its 13 members have met since fall to discuss governance and funding of the preschool system. But he said the group would be unable to work if it lost its funds.

“;It is not additional money. It has already been set aside for this purpose,”; said Peters, head of Hanahauoli School. “;We are probably not talking about a great deal of money. I'm sure there will be less than half left at that point or about half.”;

House Education Chairman Roy Takumi said the bill would allow the council to prepare for the preschool system's launch once the economy rebounds.

“;We would have all the fundamental components you need in place,”; said Takumi (D, Pearl City-Pacific Palisades).

Meanwhile, lawmakers are considering creative ways to sustain the initiative.

Senate Education Chairman Norman Sakamoto introduced a bill that would charge distributors of plastic shopping bags 5 cents a bag and channel the money to the Early Learning Council. Under Senate Bill 1163, the council also would get 10 percent of the revenue the state gets through its HI-5 beverage container program.

The state Health Department, which charges consumers 6 cents per beverage container, including a nonrefundable penny, is reviewing the proposals. But the agency worries the suggested plastic-bag fee would lead to administrative expenses at a time the state is working to reduce costs, said Karl Motoyama, solid-waste management coordinator with the HI-5 program.

Motoyama said the beverage program had about $13 million available as of last month, but the Lingle administration is seeking to use as much as $10 million to address the budget deficit.

Sakamoto (D, Salt Lake-Foster Village) said opinion polls have shown that taxpayers may be willing to pay fees to improve education.

“;I think everyone would say early learning is very important,”; he said. “;Being that the general funds are so tight, I think this mechanism makes sense.”;