Emergency funds needed for preschool


POSTED: Wednesday, December 30, 2009

While Furlough Fridays are keeping kindergarteners to 12th-graders out of school, another education crisis is looming: Thousands of young children are on the brink of losing early learning opportunities in 2010, when the state Department of Human Services plans to impose steep increases in co-payments on families receiving federal child care aid.

The federal funds are intended to keep children safe, healthy and learning while their low-income parents are in the work force. But DHS Director Lillian Koller says her agency does not have the money to continue the program for the rest of the fiscal year.

Koller has proposed a radical revision of DHS policy that has alarmed families, early education providers and child advocates. The centerpiece is a sliding fee scale that is deeply flawed, expecting low-income families to pay up to 20, 30, 40 or even 50 percent of their total income for child care. Nationally, the average paid by families for child care is 7 percent of income.

Koller's proposal—outlined in her “;Island Commentary”; (”;Changes would keep child care subsidies,”; Star-Bulletin, Dec. 8)—aims to give a little to everyone. The net result, however, would be too little for most, putting preschool and child care out of reach.

The consequences would be widespread: parents leaving jobs to care for their children or, in desperation, leaving them in unsafe environments; and preschools closing, affecting more families and businesses.

The loss of early learning opportunities would hurt the state for years to come. A recent study shows that for every dollar invested in early learning in Hawaii, future economic returns equal $4.20.

At this point, how can harm be minimized?

The new sliding scale should be scrapped. DHS already has authority in its administrative rules to revise its child care subsidies in the face of a shortage of funds. Immediate efforts must focus on rationing available funds among eligible families and finding ways to reduce the impact on the thousands who may lose child care. Emergency funds are needed.

There is broad public support for tapping the “;rainy day fund”; to help end Furlough Fridays. A portion of the fund could also be used to keep young children in preschool.

Another likely source is a reserve fund consisting of savings from the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program. The governor holds the key to both of these funds.

Here's what Gov. Linda Lingle can do to keep children safe and learning so they can enter kindergarten prepared to succeed:
» Approve use of a portion of the TANF savings reserve fund and a portion of the rainy day fund to meet commitments already made to needy families.
» Reject the proposed amendment to the DHS administrative rules.

Here's what DHS Director Koller can do:
» Abandon the proposed sliding scale and devise a plan for rationing available funds for the remainder of the fiscal year, based on current rules.
» Waive fees for families at poverty level and ensure that co-payments rise gradually with income yet do not exceed 10 percent of income.
» Commit to developing a sound co-payment policy by July.

Teresa Vast is an early childhood policy consultant who resides in Kailua.