Understanding the Governor's Early Childhood Education Plan
May 13, 2014
Early childhood education was a heated issue for the past couple of years at the Legislature. In 2012, the Legislature with the support of the Governor passed Senate Bill 2545, which eliminated junior kindergarten and changed the kindergarten entry age. These changes left an estimated 5,000 children (late-born 4 year olds) and their parents with the choice of either staying home or remaining in private preschool programs. Though Hawaii offers some subsidy programs for needy families to pay for private preschool, the Legislature's actions were used as a catalyst for the Governor's new early childhood education program that would allow public funding to be used for private school early education programs.
Establishing a new publicly-funded private preschool program is both contentious and complicated. Thus far, efforts to establish the program have garnered support from a variety of local organizations but also have disenfranchised important stakeholders like the Hawaii State Teachers' Association and some religious preschools. This November, Hawaii voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the discussion when a constitutional amendment to move the program forward will appear on the ballot.
Below are some frequently asked questions and points of information that will help you better understand the debate over the proposed Early Childhood Education Program. However, it should be noted that a lot about the program is still unknown, including program costs, the exact nature of state control over private curriculum, interaction between the program and public schools, and the eligibility requirements for religious preschools.
WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED TO JUNIOR KINDERGARTEN?
In 2012, the Legislature passed Act 178 (Senate Bill 2545), which repealed junior kindergarten (JK) programs at the end of the 2013-2014 school year, and required that students be at least 5 years old on July 31 of the 2014-2015 school year to enroll in kindergarten.
At the time, many organizations submitted testimony to the Legislature – including the Early Learning Council, Good Beginnings Alliance, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and others – citing concerns about the repeal of junior kindergarten in 2014. BeMyVoice! Hawai‘i, a highly regarded child advocacy organization, stated that “eliminating JK without a fully-funded quality early learning program in place would be disastrous for our state, our communities, our families, and most of all our keiki.”
Nevertheless, amendments proposed to delay the repeal of JK were not incorporated in the final bill, and on June 28, 2012, Act 178 was signed into law, and JK was officially repealed.
WHAT DOES THE PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT DO?
The early childhood education constitutional amendment would allow private early childhood education programs (preschools) to receive public funding from the State.
The constitutional amendment proposed in Senate Bill 1084 is designed to fund private early education programs that are not available through the Department of Education public school system.
On the 2014 election ballot, the question of whether or not the Hawaii Constitution should be amended will be presented like this:
“Shall the appropriation of public funds be permitted for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs that shall not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex or ancestry, as provided by law?”
WHY DO WE NEED A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT TO CREATE THIS PROGRAM?
The Hawaii State Constitution Article X, Section I specifically prohibits public funds to support or benefit private educational institutions. This amendment would carve out an exception for certain preschools.
WHAT IS THE OPPOSITION TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT?
The Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) opposed (in testimony submitted to the House Finance Committee on 4/2/2013) the constitutional amendment, and any privatization or subcontracting program, that:
1. May reduce resources that would otherwise go towards public education.
2. Weakens the wall of separation between church and state; and
3. Threatens the economic security of public education employees, so that the services can be performed by private sector employees.
Hawaii Family Forum, Hawaii Catholic Conference, Hawaii Catholic Schools, Hawaii Baptist Early Education Association and Faith Based Early Learning Coalition each raised concerns that, as written, the constitutional amendment would allow government to pick winners and losers among private schools because private preschools with a religious curriculum would not be allowed to participate.
WILL THE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT ESTABLISH A PUBLICLY-FUNDED PRIVATE PRESCHOOL PROGRAM?
No, the program will need to be established and funded by the Legislature upon the ratification of the constitutional amendment.
House Bill 2276, the bill that would have established a statewide Early Childhood Education Program, failed in the final days of the 2014 legislative session.
Until a program is approved by the Legislature, the details of the actual program will not be definite.
WHAT WILL THE PROPOSED PROGRAM DO?
The program will serve three- and four-year-old children with priority extended to:
Children in the year prior to being eligible to attend kindergarten and
Underserved or at-risk children.
It will allow the Executive Office on Early Learning to enter into direct contracts with eligible private preschools. Eligibility requirements are yet to be determined.