Educators: Thousands of Hawaii Children Left Behind in Preschool Talks

Honolulu Civil Beat - January 30, 2014
By: 
Alia Wong

As high-profile deliberations over whether there should be publicly funded preschool resume, some Hawaii educators and parents are growing frustrated with the limited attention that policymakers are giving to imminent changes to the state’s kindergarten age requirement. The changes are expected to shake up the entire public school system and leave thousands of families without a place for their children to study.

Children who aren’t 5 years old by the first day of school, which is in August, will not be allowed to enroll in kindergarten. That adds up to about 5,100 students this year — roughly one-third of the entire kindergarten class. Next year, that number is expected to rise to 7,000.

Some current preschool providers, including Head Start and Kamehameha Schools, have already committed to keeping their late-born students for an extra year, which would leave an estimated 3,500 kids in need of alternatives.

But some educators worry that many of the late-born kids are being forgotten while Gov. Neil Abercrombie and others continue to advocate for a mixed-delivery preschool initiative. The educators also fear the disruptive impact the children's exclusion will have on their schools down the road.

The newest iteration of the initiative promoted by the governor includes a $4.5 million proposal to create 32 pre-kindergarten classrooms at 30 schools across the state, a program that would create additional slots for an estimated 640 students.

The concerned educators include former teacher and state Rep. Lyla Berg and Kamaile Academy's early education director Gale Flynn, both of whom support public preschool. In fact, both of them were involved in initial efforts nearly a decade ago to develop a state-funded early learning system and helped design the framework that underpins the current plan.

But the way the initiative is shaking out now isn’t quite what they had in mind.

“No one is talking about the children who will be left behind,” noted Berg, who said she simply couldn’t "sit on the sidelines anymore” after reading a national education e-newsletter that included a tidbit from a national education think tank touting Abercrombie’s pre-K classroom plan. Berg helped shepherd early education legislation in 2009 that aimed to build on existing public school services — rather than “disallow” thousands of late-born children from entering
kindergarten next school year, she said.

The upcoming change is the result of a law passed by the 2012 Legislature to repeal the state’s junior kindergarten program. The program was established as part of a 2004 law creating a two-tiered kindergarten system “to support the range of developmental abilities of children.” In other words, children who would’ve turned 5 after the start of the school year — between Aug. 2 and the end of the calendar year — would be separated from their older peers and placed in a program more suited to their learning needs.

But Flynn and other early education advocates, including Education Committee Chairwoman Sen. Jill Tokuda, highlight the shortcomings of the junior kindergarten program.

“Nothing essentially changed. People kept registering not really realizing what (junior kindergarten) was,” said Flynn, who formerly served as director of preschool efforts for Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, a coalition of state agencies aimed at strengthening the pipeline from early childhood through higher education.

“It was business as usual all these years — until now.”

The program was repealed in part to give momentum to current preschool efforts.

Tokuda said the decision to repeal the program was painful but that she doesn’t regret it. She pointed to a recent conversation she had with one longtime preschool advocate who has been fighting for a public early learning system to little avail for years. He asked her what makes the newest push different.
“I said to him, ‘The Legislature has been kicking the can down the road for decades. I’m going to build you a concrete wall that’s not going to allow me to kick the can down the road any longer,'” Tokuda recounted. “Sometimes you have to create a sense of urgency to incite action.”
Still, with very little set in stone, Flynn said, thousands of children will become the “collateral damage” of the program’s cancellation.

Ripple Effects

Gwen Woltz, whose daughter won't turn 5 until Aug. 30 of this year, said she feels that the state didn't prepare families for the changes.
“What was a little disappointing is that they didn’t have a solution in place prior to cutting off the age,” said Woltz, a single mother who has to cut short her workday at 2 p.m. to care for her daughter.

But Woltz, whose daughter has been enrolled in Head Start in the Kaaawa area for the past two years and who will likely stay there another year, says she understands the logic behind repealing junior kindergarten. The social experience of late-born children, she said, is very different from those of their older peers.
“Being the youngest in the pack would affect them for the rest of your lives,” she said. “Hard decisions have to be made, and some people are going to get the short end of the stick.”

Abercrombie’s plan would open up as many as 2,240 preschool seats next school year, but many of those seats are contingent on whether lawmakers set aside the $8 million he is requesting this session for several preschool programs.
The Legislature last year granted $6 million to open up seats for 900 or so low-income, late-born children through the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program for this year. (That was a fraction of the $31 million that Abercrombie requested in his 2013-15 biennium budget plan.)

Abercrombie’s newest requests include another $2.5 million for Preschool Open Doors, increasing the number of seats to 1,200 late-born children who, when in a family of four, live on an income of $68,000 or less. The governor also wants lawmakers to set aside about $1 million for 400 high-poverty children to take part in family-child interaction learning programs.

Meanwhile, the pre-kindergarten classrooms would serve children who live at or below about 200 percent of the poverty level, which amounts to an income of about $50,000 or less for a family of four. Senate Bill 2236 would allow the Executive Office on Early Learning to enter into contracts with the DOE to establish the pre-K classrooms.

But even if all the funding is granted, thousands of families will be left searching for alternatives for the next school year. And in this case, people like Berg and Flynn are particularly concerned about the children from working-class families that might not qualify as low-income but who are still struggle to afford preschool. Preschool programs typically cost between $500 and $1,000 a month.

And the reduced kindergarten class, which is expected to consist of about 11,000 children — rather than the nearly 16,500 children that it would have been — will ripple through the schools around the state for years to come, Flynn said.
The teacher workforce will be affected too, she said, as the upcoming kindergarten class matriculates through the K-12 system. “All these teachers that were comfortable where they were will be displaced ... and then moved around.”

Terry Lock, who works with students training to be preschool and elementary-level educators at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Education, said the university is already telling student teachers that the job opportunities will be limited next year.
Some educators also wonder why the junior kindergarten program is being repealed before voters have an opportunity to weigh in on an amendment to Hawaii’s constitution that would allow the state to use public money for private preschools.

Not everyone’s confident the amendment, which will be on the ballot in November, will pass.

Some lawmakers are proposing their own solutions. For example, Sen. Mike Gabbard, who sits on the education committee, has introduced a bill that would allow the state’s Early Learning Advisory Board to decide on a case-by-case basis whether certain late-born children can enroll in kindergarten. But as of Wednesday, Senate Bill 2189 hadn’t gotten a hearing.

The main bills related to early learning, including SB 2236, got their first hearings this week. The Senate education committee passed Senate Bill 2826, which enables the framework for a large-scale early learning system, and Senate Bill 2975, which allocates money for family-centered early learning programs.