Help poorest preschoolers


POSTED: Friday, November 27, 2009

Hawaii has made good strides in recent years to help low- and middle-income families pay for tuition in preschool programs, but the recession's effect on the state's budget threatens a severe setback. Like other states facing similar challenges, Hawaii officials should find a way to ease the effect on children most in need.

Gov. Linda Lingle and the state's Democratic Legislature agreed five years ago that state subsidies were needed to help prevent children entering kindergarten from being disadvantaged in school. At that time, a family with one child needed an income of nearly $60,000 to afford monthly tuition of $517 at high-quality preschools programs.

Tuitions now exceed $600 a month, and the state provides subsidies allowing 2,500 children from families with incomes less than 175 percent of the federal poverty level to attend at reduced cost.

Under the proposal, the state subsidies would be reduced so that families of four making between $1,356 and $1,807, which now receive full tuition from the state, would have to pay $120 a month, according to Good Beginnings Now, a Hawaii nonprofit group that advocates for young children. Families making $2,892 to $3,162 and now paying $120 in monthly tuition would have to pay $420.

More than 65 parents and preschool providers pleaded at a hearing this week that the state cutbacks be reduced or eliminated. State Human Services spokeswoman Tony Schwartz said no starting date has been decided upon to implement the cuts, and officials declined to give details about the proposal, including the total amount of state funds involved.

Laurelle Rzeszewski, a single mother and college graduate, said she might have to quit her job as an art therapist to take care of her child, who has been attending preschool. Indeed, preschool operators testified that many of their low-income clients will be unable to afford the lower tuition subsidies, and some schools will be forced to shut down for lack of adequate attendance.

“;We will be closing our doors if your proposal is adopted,”; said Kathy Oshiro, board treasurer at Ka Hale o na Keiki Preschool in a rural area of the Big Island. “;I know our rural families cannot afford any increase in their co-pay. Their choice will be either take food off their family's table and try to pay the increased co-pay or withdraw their children from preschool.”;

Like most states, Hawaii began subsidizing tuition for preschool children of low-income families fairly recently, so such programs are relatively vulnerable to budget cutbacks. As much as Furlough Fridays, sharp reductions in tuition subsidies should be recognized as reducing the investment in the education of the state's youth.