I thought I could hold my tongue and refrain from speaking out about the upcoming ballot issue No. 4 proposed constitutional amendment. Turns out I've failed, because here I am, indignantly sharing my opinion. Loud and clear, I believe we should vote YES on the No. 4 Proposed Constitutional Amendment.
I believe in early education and support efforts to provide more opportunities for all families in the islands. You've heard me advocate (okay, maybe even rant a little) on the unquestionable benefits of early education not only to children and families but also to communities, our economy and government. There are many types of programs available in our neighborhoods that meet the varying needs and choices of families and their young children.
However in recent weeks, I have heard many statements about the constitutional amendment and early education in Hawaii that are misleading or flat-out lies. I realize that it's election season and people will say what they will, but here's the thing -- this is information that will affect voters' opinions, which in turn will impact early education in Hawaii and for our young children.
So at the very least, I feel its important to minimize the "noise" and stick to the facts.
Why do we need the Constitutional Amendment?
During the November election, voters will be able to choose whether or not to pass the proposed constitutional amendment (ballot question #4). This will directly affect Hawaii's state-funded program for children.
To be clear, the proposed change would allow "public funds for private early childhood education programs..." The proposed change is specific to early childhood education programs, otherwise known as preschools, to receive funds to then provide services to more 4-year-old children.
Voting yes, allows the state to move forward and implement the Early Childhood Education program (otherwise known as state-funded preschool), allowing more 4-year old-children the opportunity to attend preschool. This is a contracting model, not a voucher system. Contracts could also allow the state to define expectations of service providers beyond the existing standards related to quality and curriculum.
Voting no puts the burden on parents to pay tuition without any assistance and/or puts early education into the public school system.
Hold on. There are issues to both sides of that scenario, so let's clarify a little more.
What are private early childhood education programs?
Basically, private early childhood education programs are preschools operating right at this moment in our communities. They have been the mainstay providers for our families and some also have indicated the ability to expand services. Preschool programs provide nurturing learning opportunities for young children before they start elementary school. Some programs may also provide childcare to younger children, even infants, so that parents are able to go back to school or work.
The majority of Hawaii preschools are nationally accredited or in the process of becoming accredited. Many private early childhood education programs have long lasting ties in our communities, including familiar names such as Kama'aina Kids, Queen Emma Preschool, KCAA Preschools of Hawaii, Montessori of Maui, and many more. In fact, Hawaii has over 400 licensed preschools statewide. While these examples are considered private programs, they are not private schools such as those familiar to us like Punahou School or Kamehameha Schools. Moreover, the language of the amendment is specific to early childhood education programs (not older ages) and the state's new Early Childhood Education program targets a specific population of children.
Are there special qualifications for teachers of young children?
What we know through research is that preschool teachers should have specialized training in early education in order to provide quality-learning opportunities for young children. This includes higher education degrees and/or coursework, professional credential, and /or ongoing specialized training, specific to early education.
In Hawaii, private early childhood education programs are licensed and monitored by the State Department of Human Services, who has set minimum qualifications for preschool teachers. There are multiple pathways to becoming qualified as a teacher, but they all include a blend of higher education and early education training or coursework. Beyond the minimum, preschool teachers have access to ongoing training opportunities that are expected for licensing renewal and/or accreditation maintenance.
Why not put state-funded preschool into the DOE?
The idea of adding state-funded preschool into our education system seems logical at face value. However if we dive deeper there are immediate systemic issues to consider.
- Facilities: Is there adequate space on every DOE campus for preschool classrooms? Additionally, classrooms will need to be modified to meet the needs of young children, including usable space per child, indoor areas for toilets, drinking water and hand-washing facilities, routine cleaning and sanitation (examples as per NAEYC accreditation standards). The cost to adapt existing classrooms to accommodate 4-year-old children is estimated at 24.8 million. Is that funding available?
- Teachers: Does the DOE currently employ teachers who have background and/or specific training in early education? Are professional development opportunities and/or higher education courses easily accessible to meet the needs of teachers?
- History: The DOE previously operated the Jr. K program in select communities but with very mixed success (the program has since ended in 2013). How will this be different and ensure success?
Can a public-private delivery reach more children?
By voting yes to the constitutional amendment, public funding will be accessible to private early childhood education programs through contracts with the new Early Childhood Education program. It would create a working partnership for public-private service delivery, much like existing programs within our state such as programs that serve high need special education students.
Again I am talking about preschool programs that have the forte and background to best serve young children, and are available in your communities right now. While each community is unique and the demand for more preschool options differs, the main point is that existing programs could expand services to families and children right now.
With the implementation of the Early Childhood Education program, the state will be able to define expectations of the participating preschool programs including child outcomes, family engagement, curriculum aligned to state standards, etc. Guidelines that address specific issues of faith-based programs will be applied as well. The Early Childhood Education program will focus on low- to moderate- income children, based on a sliding fee scale.
The prevalence and support for early learning continues to grow in the United States as child development research, neuroscience and program evaluation demonstrate that early experiences create a foundation for lifelong learning, behavior and both physical and mental health (The Science of Early Childhood Development, 2007). However, in Hawaii we continue to be one of just 10 states that do not have a state-funded pre-kindergarten program (NIEER, 2013).
The Children's Defense Fund Children in Hawaii, (2013) reports the clear need for quality options in the islands, with 64.5 percent of children under the age of six years old, with all parents in the labor force. Only 14.3 percent of 4-year-olds and 8.4 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in publicly funded programs such as federal Head Start or special education programs, which means families are left to pay for services out of pocket which is on average $7,752 annually, or find alternative options for children.
I hope these facts clarify the questions and the confusion whirling around the issue. Other resources such as the Yes on 4 campaign and the Good Beginnings Alliance could offer more information, as well as the Executive Office on Early Learning regarding the Early Childhood Education program.
During the election, the public will have the opportunity to decide the impact we will have on preschools in Hawaii and our children. I know what my vote will be, I hope you are closer to knowing yours too.