09/03/2013 04:00 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2013

Ready to Learn?

This month, thousands of keiki across the islands are starting their school careers as they anxiously begin kindergarten in our public schools. Yet, local studies tell us that more than 40% begin school without a solid learning foundation.

What does it mean to be ready to learn? In a kindergarten classroom, children who are ready to learn have had experience in early learning programs, such as preschool or family child interactive learning programs. Children with these learning experiences are socially and cognitively prepared for kindergarten. They are familiar and comfortable being in a classroom or learning environment. These children know how to engage with their teacher and classmates, follow directions and pay attention.

Activities have helped them strengthen their little hands, build hand-eye coordination skills and they are able to properly hold a pencil or crayon. Books and other learning materials, such as paints, blocks, puzzles, art supplies and scissors are well known. Many of these children may be able to identify some shapes, colors, numbers and alphabets, and in fact, most can spell and write their names. Their parents may have also received coaching on how to enrich their interaction with their child to provide everyday learning opportunities at home. These groups of experienced children come into kindergarten, on day one, fully equipped with many of these skills and are ready to go!

Meanwhile, those who have not experienced any time in an early learning program are just warming up and getting adjusted. With so many benefits, why aren't more children coming to school ready to learn?

The answer is most commonly twofold, high cost and the lack of availability of early learning programs. Tuition for three- to five-year-old children is $415 to $700, which varies by island but is even higher for younger children.

At the same time, most schools have waiting lists of children who would like to attend. Some families are able to access financial supports through federal or state aid programs or Kamehameha Schools' scholarships but many must find a way to afford tuition on their own. While most early learning programs in Hawaii are privately operated by non-profit, for-profit or faith-based organizations, the majority are not huge moneymakers with exorbitant profit margins.

Other states are ahead in providing early learning opportunities to their young children. In fact, even the Federal government supports early learning with its Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge that was launched in 2009 and the new PreK for All initiative slated to start this fall. Meanwhile, Hawaii continues to be one of just 10 states that do not have a state-funded preschool program. This year, Governor Abercrombie put forth proposals squarely focused on early learning that started the first phase of a long-term plan, but we still have a long way to go. This fall, the public will have the opportunity to voice their opinion via ballot on whether or not Hawaii should use public funds to support early learning.

Really, is there any other choice?

Sure, there are gripes about using public tax dollars to pay for "babysitting" but its time for folks to understand the value and significance of providing our children with early learning experiences. Think of it as investing in building a dam at the top of a waterfall to catch your water, rather than spending a lifetime of carrying your water all the ways back up the hill. Beyond the immediate classroom benefits of early learning programs, years of research across the nation support the positive, long-lasting and rippling effects of high-quality early learning programs. Students that are ready to learn and better prepared reduce the need for special education and remedial services. There is also less demand for social services and a lower rate of incarceration.

Looking towards the future and building our local economy, children who are ready to learn are more likely to graduate high school and go on to college. Later in life, they will have a higher rate of employment and higher earning potential. And okay let's face it, with better jobs and salaries they also generate higher tax revenue too. In fact, providing state-funded early learning programs means that more parents would be able to work or attend school in the near future.

In Hawaii we hold tremendous value for our keiki and the families that come with them. It is time that we come together and do a better job of investing in the early learning of our young children so that we can set them on their educational path ready to learn.