Push for Preschool for All Hawai‘i Kids Receives Powerful New Supporters

Early childhood offers a critical opportunity for children to learn and grow in ways that help them thrive throughout their lives. Yet Hawai‘i politicians have been debating universal preschool for decades and the first public classes just started six years ago. Will this be the year big expansion happens?
preschool for all
Cherie Yamashiroya- Ching leads her public prekindergarten class at Linapuni Elementary.


Teacher Cherie Yamashiroya-Ching sits in a circle surrounded by 4- and 5-year-olds singing and clapping with her, then they all stop on beat to take turns answering the question: “Where do I like to go?”


The answers bubble up playfully in the Kalihi preschool classroom, some louder than others: Playground. With my family. To the chocolate factory. When everyone’s had a turn, the girls and boys organize in small groups around the room, where all the furniture fits their smaller stature. There are nooks big enough for several children to play together or to curl up with books. Some students volunteer to put out snacks in bowls, others build with blocks and magnets while a couple don tiny chef toques and cook up imaginary meals in the toy kitchen.


Yamashiroya-Ching is in her seventh year teaching, but only her second leading a free public prekindergarten classroom run by the Executive Office of Early Learning at Linapuni Elementary School in Kalihi. The bright classroom is bustling but neat, with child-size mailboxes for communication with parents, cubbies stuffed with nap blankets, and lots of centers designed to encourage various types of play. Thick green grass grows in front of the walkway fronting the classroom. Outside, there are scooters, tricycles and big foam blocks to build with, all across from the renovated public housing project, now known as The Towers at Kūhiō Park.


Since the 1990s, Hawai‘i government officials have discussed providing free public preschool to Island keiki but made slow progress. The early learning office first opened a public prekindergarten program in 2014 with some 420 children in 21 classrooms; this year capacity reached 880 children. That’s projected to grow to 1,100 children in 55 classrooms next school year. A new proposal to swiftly expand with much larger numbers—at least 10 times the 10-classroom-a-year growth seen so far—gained traction this legislative session when it showed up in a package of bills backed by people who haven’t agreed on priorities in the past.


Lawmakers get serious

From the day before the Hawai‘i Legislature convened for business this year, the ambitious preschool expansion won broad support from a packed room of leaders in the state House and Senate as well as from Gov. David Ige and a coalition of business and community leaders. They all cited a lack of early education as a contributing factor to the increasing struggle of working-class residents to make a living. To give you an idea of how unusual it is at the state Capitol for so many officials to back a slate of proposals, the last time it happened was 2004.


The powerful chair of the House Finance Committee, Sylvia Luke, says she saw the need for change after statistics showed three consecutive years of increasing numbers of people moving out of the state, coupled with reports showing how many people in the Islands are struggling to pay for housing, food and child care each month on existing salaries, many citing a low minimum wage. “The status quo was not acceptable anymore,” Luke says.


House Education chair Justin Woodson says lawmakers want to begin with 3- and 4-year-olds who are not likely to be in school otherwise to get them ready for kindergarten. Even though more than 40% of children in that age group are enrolled in private centers, that still leaves many at home. “We have to start somewhere and this is where we think is the best and most highest use of our energies at this time,” Woodson says.


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i’s Public School Lunches Are Changing in a Big Way

preschool for all


Business and community leaders are rallying around the idea, describing it as good for the state overall and the workers who keep the state running. Micah Kāne is CEO of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation as well as a director with the Hawai‘i Executive Collaborative, a group of execs who focus on big issues. “What we’ve seen is how Hawai‘i’s average families are not benefiting from the economic growth that is happening in our community,” Kāne says, with working-class people moving away because of the cost of living. “Honolulu County alone lost net 62,000 people between 2011 and 2018. That’s a 7% percent decline in our population,” he says.


Luke sees the exodus of people as deeply troubling because of who they are. “It wasn’t the low-income folks or the no-income folks and it wasn’t the high-income folks,” she says.


From the early education proposal’s first public hearings before the state House Finance and Education committees on Feb. 18, the bill gained broad support. It’s unusual for such a large, important issue that affects families and taxpayers across the Islands to gain near-unanimous support, along with suggestions for improvement.


Last year, state schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto opposed a proposal with many of the same goals. But this one “is truly a public-private partnership for startup dollars, then followed by state operational dollars,” Kishimoto says. “I think the timing is very good.” Beginning the legislative discussion with the support of legislative leaders, the governor as well as business and community leaders made a difference, she says. “They made a public commitment to deliver on this promise for increasing pre-K through some mixed means, some mixed-delivery approaches.” Those mixed approaches include support for private preschools and charter schools, federally funded classes, special education classes and more.


Kamehameha Schools CEO Jack Wong told lawmakers that the schools’ strong support stems from decades of early learning experience. “We know it’s hard; we know this bill has a lot of challenges. You’re hearing about its imperfections. And our testimony says we love it anyway just like we love our kids.”


“We believe it can be done faster, better and cheaper using a public system than any type of private system.” 


Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, is another important voice in the debate. “I think that the difference is, this time around, people are trying to work with us to make this happen,” he says. “Everyone wants to see preschool happen and HSTA is willing to work with the Legislature and community partners to make sure it happens.”


Rosenlee says proposals in years past would have allowed using public money in the form of vouchers to allow students to attend private schools, which he opposes as weakening the public school system.


Rosenlee notes that it takes about $12,000 a year to run a private preschool, compared to $7,000 a year for a public one. “We believe it can be done faster, better and cheaper using a public system than any type of private system.”


Private partners pledge millions

Finding money to pay for care usually is a stumbling block. Luke is often skeptical and financially cautious, so her support brings credence. She notes that business and community leaders showed up for more than a photo opportunity. They showed up with time, money and the promise to spend it. They set a goal of raising $200 million in private money to expand preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds across the state over 10 years.


Bringing in private money provides options that reach further than tax dollars. Those funds can be used to swiftly build and/or operate more schools in places closer to where parents work and live: at college campuses, the Hawai‘i Convention Center, Aloha Stadium, at private businesses, Kāne says. (Kāne worked closely on the package with other business leaders including Duane Kurisu, the chairman and CEO of aio, the parent company of HONOLULU Magazine.)


SEE ALSO: How Hawaiian Immersion Programs Are Inspiring Public School Students

preschool for all


That partnership could be the game changer for an idea that has been slow to take hold. In 2001, then-Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono spearheaded the effort to provide universal access for “all needy children” in a Pre-Plus program; in 2013, then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie set aside $6.5 million to help subsidize preschool for hundreds of children. And last year, Ige focused on the pressing need for universal preschool. This year, the governor is backing the proposal to add 100 classes each year with 20 students per class. If it succeeds, it still means it’s taken two decades to get nearly 3,000 kids in class.


State Senate education chair Michelle Kidani says the partnership and hundreds of millions in private dollars are a much-needed kickstart: “We’ve let an entire generation go without because we have not dedicated the resources and had the will to act.”


Kāne acknowledges that initial estimates of the number of preschoolers whose families are actively seeking care ranged from 14,000 to 20,000. “It’s still thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people that need to be served.” And that’s why, he says, he’s pushing for big, swift change. “Speed and scale are super important because the families that we’re trying to help are in a very urgent and dire situation.”


The public-private partnership would also expand “child subsidies or scholarships for those families to go through day care centers or private preschools,” through the state Department of Human Services, Woodson says.


Luke says the state can build upon a foundation that has been put in place by government and private entities. “Head Start is already there, Preschool Open Doors is there, child care subsidy is there,” Luke says. preschool for all

The envisioned expansion would mean creating more classrooms, both on and off public school campuses, mostly through DHS’s Preschool Open Doors, with a 2018 enrollment of 1,600 children. That would be in addition to the public prekindergarten classrooms run by the early learning office, charter schools, and Pre-Plus, where the early learning office contracts with private vendors who run federally funded Head Start classrooms on state property for another 2,200 students. (That program includes medical, dental and health support as well.)


The HSTA’s Rosenlee sees room to expand at public schools, noting an earlier DOE Facility Master Plan that reported there’s potential for 22,419 surplus or vacant seats statewide, some of which could be used for early education.


While the details of the bill are evolving throughout this legislative session, in February Kishimoto provided a list of 43 potential public school classrooms across the state that could be used for 860 4-year-olds in preschool beginning in August of this year, along with 10 others slated for EOEL expansion. However, some of those classrooms were already in use for other school functions.


“If there is funding for these classrooms, then we will have these classrooms ready,” Kishimoto says. “This is the we-can-deliver-this-now list,” she says.


As of last school year, Kishimoto says, another 1,593 prekindergarten special education students were receiving services in public schools. She says this provides another opportunity to expand integrated general education alongside those classrooms. Rosenlee backs a special education model that integrates students of differing abilities.


State librarian Stacey Aldrich joined the chorus of officials in favor of exploring early education for libraries as well. “For many families, libraries are the natural place for learning and resources, especially for emergent readers. Through our 51 branch libraries located throughout Hawai‘i, we offer thousands of hours of story times, and child-focused programming and services,” she says. preschool for all

View from school

Parent David Kelleher, 30, watches his daughters and niece play with other children on the grass outside Linapuni Elementary and smiles. He’s in the Navy, a single dad, who lives in military housing at Moanalua and works as a dockmaster at Pearl Harbor. He grew up in Kalihi, and with his mom still living in the neighborhood, he wants his girls to feel a sense of belonging in this community.


Kelleher has two daughters, both at Linapuni. Davina, 3, is in a federally funded Head Start preschool classroom run by Parents And Children Together. Deeziyah, 6, is in kindergarten, just upstairs from the preschool she attended last year and one of 44 publicly funded EOEL prekindergarten classes across the state. Without the support programs, he likely would have kept the kids in day care until kindergarten.

SEE ALSO: Even With the New Push for Universal Preschool, Families With Younger Kids Will Still Struggle

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David Kelleher with his daughter Deeziyah.


Deeziyah peeks into her old classroom. “I like learning,” she says, “playing with numbers and playing with toys.” Yamashiroya-Ching’s classroom includes blocks, a water-play area, dress up costumes for pretend play, several places to read. She and an educational assistant work with up to 20 students in each class.


In her kindergarten class, Deeziyah likes learning more about math.


Kelleher sees the difference preschool makes for his daughters as they learn about letters and numbers, painting and playing with friends. “[Davina] learned to write her name,” he says, which has given her more confidence. “Before that she would keep to herself a lot and now she socializes.”


Getting started

ªCreating a quality preschool experience isn’t as simple as finding an empty room. The EOEL’s director, Lauren Moriguchi, says when elementary schools first added preschool classrooms, “It was actually kind of comical because you would see kids sitting at the desks coming up to their chins, their feet dangling, because principals really didn’t know what kind of furniture was needed for an early childhood classroom because they’d never had these classrooms on their campuses.”


And the classes need tools as well as furniture. Early education specialist Coleen Momohara explains that what might look like child’s play can also build critical skills. She points across the EOEL class toward blocks sized mathematically, to a boy building a structure with magnets, by himself: “He has a task in mind—being able to ignore everything else, to problem-solve or reason things out.” When two other keiki join him, the boy adjusts to that change, which shows valuable lessons in what behavior experts call executive function, Momohara says.


Are there enough teachers?

ªEven more important than the tools are the teachers. “We’re already having difficulty filling our existing positions” for the 44 publicly funded EOEL prekinder-garten classes, Moriguchi says. To fill more positions, more people will need to be certified. And they’ll need assistance to continue their training while they work.


Among members of the teachers union, Rosenlee says there are some teachers ready and willing to teach preschool, but not for a sharp reduction in pay. Rosenlee says there are 500 licensed preschool teacher union members working in the DOE not teaching preschool. In a recent HSTA survey, nearly half of these teachers said they’d be willing to teach preschool and 100 more teachers not yet licensed expressed interest in teaching younger children. However, HSTA statistics show the average early education salary is $34,000; the average salary of a DOE teacher is $65,000, where 37% of members have a master’s degree or more.


So teacher pay is a hurdle. Moriguchi cites government surveys that show that the median average salary of a child care worker is lower than a parking lot attendant, manicurist and word processor typist.


“Considering the fact that 85% of the brain is developed by age 5, the people who are working in this sector are so crucial,” Moriguchi says. “If we’re paying them less than we are paying a manicurist, then that is saying a lot. We need to value the people who are working in this profession.”


Besides the issues of pay and building a trained workforce, Moriguchi worries that rapid growth could cause problems if that training is compromised. “We know that programs that are not of high quality can actually be detrimental to the children that we are targeting, especially if you don’t have a teacher who understands how to support the development of young children.” Moriguchi says classes that force young children to follow a structure designed for older children can make them feel like misfits and “that really sets them off on the wrong trajectory.”


Child care or career?

Prekindergarten parent Matalasi Valenzuela ruffles 4-year-old Antonio’s hair outside his EOEL classroom. Her son ducks and bobs back up, his big smile dimpling his cheeks. She also grew up in the neighborhood and sent her daughter, now 12 and a student in ‘Aiea, to the same Linapuni classroom, when it was one of the first EOEL classrooms.


Before that, Valenzuela stayed home with each child after she and her husband did the math, comparing her salary to the cost of child care. “It would have been the same amount I was getting paid.”


“I could do a part-time job and know they were safe here.”
preschool for all
Matalasi Valenzuela with her son Antonio.


For Valenzuela, the EOEL class enabled her to return to work after her children were old enough to go to preschool at 3. “I could do a part-time job and know they were safe here,” she says.


Their transition into school was eased by a first-semester schedule that starts each day with 15 minutes of family time, when parent and child sit and work together.


Antonio joins his mom to talk outside. “I like to play with trucks. Sometimes I play with blocks and magnets,” he says, then zooms back into the classroom. When the family went to the library the day before, he surprised his mom by insisting that they borrow books about building “because we’re building at school.”


Small-business owner Erin Kanno Uehara is a former Hawai‘i public school teacher and mother of two young children, ages 3 and 5, who has struggled with finding child care. Even with family and resources, she says day care and preschool take up a big chunk of their income. Families pay $1,100 to $1,600 a month for preschool per child.


Uehara, who runs local chocolate shop Choco Le‘a, says she and her husband put off buying a home of their own and live with family. That helped them pay for preschool for two kids at the same time. “We are working and it is still difficult,” Uehara says. Some of her friends have quit their full-time jobs because of the high cost of child care. “I don’t know how people do it,” she adds.


Kāne says it’s clear that early education needs to reach beyond what was traditional in the past. “It could sit at an existing school, in an employer’s building, within a development, in and around rail transit, at Aloha Stadium or the convention center.”


And that requires a shift, he says. “It has to be family-and kid-centric and not bureaucracy-centric.”


What are lawmakers considering?

Main points of house bill 2543/senate Bill 3101


  • Provide all 3- to-4-year-old children in the state with access to early education by the year 2030.

  • Provide half of all unserved 3- and 4-year-olds who will be eligible for kindergarten within two years with access to early learning by 2025.

  • Focus on at-risk children, who, because of their home and community environments, are subject to language, cultural, economic and other disadvantages. Some of them will need special education; others are just learning to speak English. Still others are in foster care or are homeless or have parents who barely make enough money to support their families.  

  • Address issues raised in the Aloha United Way report, “ALICE: A Study of Financial Hardship in Hawai‘i.” The ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) report describes the economic hardships facing many working individuals and families in Hawai‘i. According to the report, after allocating money to pay for expenses such as housing, child care, food, taxes, health care and transportation, a family of four needs to earn roughly $77,000 a year simply to survive.  


Of more than 75 people who provided testimony for the Feb. 18 hearing, only three opposed the bill, including a parent who thought they should focus on younger children first and two people from the Hawai‘i Democratic Party, saying that expansion without regard for quality would do a disservice to families: “Lack of classrooms and playgrounds appropriate for preschoolers is already an issue in our state as is the lack of appropriately educated and trained preschool staff.”


Democrat Josh Frost said: “High quality, safe learning environments for our youngest students and the qualified teachers should not be undercut by the desire to open more preschools quickly. Furthermore, we should not consider spending taxpayer dollars to subsidize for-profit businesses as this bill would do as written.”  


Not every part of the proposal will pass, and details and logistics will take time. Already in contention is a proposal to require the parents or guardians of public school kindergarten students to disclose information on the child’s prior child care program or prekindergarten attendance, if any. The idea is that more accurate statistics would help identify the greatest needs but that proposal would face likely legal challenges if families decline to provide that info. And a plan to add an early learning coordinator position in the governor’s office is already facing scrutiny as unnecessary duplication of work that Moriguchi’s office does.  


Wong, the Kamehameha Schools CEO, urged lawmakers to push forward in improving and passing the proposal. “We know that this is the right thing to do; 10 years is still a long time. I think it’s about time we got started.”


Read more stories by Robbie Dingeman


This story originally appeared as “Left Behind?” in the April 2020 issue of HONOLULU Magazine. Get your copy at shop.honolulumagazine.com and subscribe to the print and digital editions now.