Come November, voters will decide whether to change Hawaii’s constitution and allow the state to spend public money on private preschool programs.

The amendment is key to establishing an early education system in Hawaii, say supporters, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona.

They believe it could expand access to preschool for thousands of 4-year-olds who miss out because their families can’t afford it. Hawaii is currently the only state that constitutionally prohibits public funding of private preschools.

But the Hawaii State Teachers Association and other critics question the prospect of doling out taxpayer money to private providers, including those with religious affiliations. Opponents include Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige, who believes the proposal is ill-conceived and could lead to wasteful spending.

Keiki Child Center of Hawaii in Pearl City. 4.30.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Independent Party candidate for governor, supports the concept but questions its feasibility, and says he needs more clarity as to how a public-private system could be implemented.

The outcome of the ballot initiative will likely shape the future of preschool education in the state: how much it costs, who pays the bills and what kinds of children participate.

The annual estimated cost of universal preschool in Hawaii varies widely, from $40 million to $125 million. The amendment wouldn’t guarantee universal preschool but would allow the state to consider a public-private approach — a strategy that advocates say would save taxpayer dollars.

But it wouldn’t eliminate the need to develop more preschools; there almost certainly isn’t enough capacity in existing facilities, private or public.

“What we’re really talking about is filling the gap for the children who are not already covered, not already in a preschool program,” said Jim Shon, executive director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center, which hasn’t taken a position on the amendment. “There’s been a lot of grumbling about how this is going to work.”

“The research is very strongly in favor of preschool education as having a lasting effect … it’s a no-brainer,” Shon said. “Now it becomes a question of how much it should cost, not to mention the philosophical, employment and other issues that come into play.”


Photo Credit: PF Bentley for Civil Beat