Editorial | Our View

A good education, extending all the way up to college, will require the state’s continued reform efforts at every level. But giving more children a way to take that first step is a worthy focus for lawmakers in 2020. Read more

Early education has long been identified as a crucial need for Hawaii’s children. The entire state, in fact, will benefit from the next generation being prepared for learning that supports success in life.

Now the state’s lawmakers are rethinking their approach to this challenge: expanding the program’s reach beyond established public-school campuses to partner with private preschools and other early-learning entities, and finding ways to bring programs to communities that now have few options.

Although there are many details that, as the Legislature convened Wednesday were not even penciled in, there is reason for cautious optimism about this development. Ever since the notion of achieving “universal preschool” rose to rank among the state’s priority goals a decade ago, state leaders have struggled to find a path for delivering on that promise.

The reason: An estimated 20,000 of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds never attend preschool, which puts them at a disadvantage when they do enter public school. Preschool can help children gain in physical, social and emotional development and the beginnings of literacy skills.

Children kept at home also can progress under an attentive parent’s tutelage, of course. But with the schedules shouldered by working parents to pay the basic bills, a setting that puts a focus on learning is a clear asset.

Recognizing that clearing these hurdles will take the combined efforts of public and private entities is a critical advance by the legislative leadership and Gov. David Ige, who have embarked on their “Learning to Grow” initiative. The hope is to create enough low-cost or free preschool slots for those not now enrolled in preschool.

In addition to the elementary-campus preschool classrooms, lawmakers propose to use taxpayer funds to grow the capacity of early-learning centers.

The state’s participation also would include creating new facilities on state properties, concentrating on filling the preschool-availability gaps, especially for rural communities on the neighbor islands.

This could mean allotting space in public facilities such as University of Hawaii campuses and other public sites statewide, Aloha Stadium and the Hawai‘i Convention Center. The idea, and it’s a good one, is to make early learning more accessible, and, through public subsidies, more affordable, too.

Lawmakers will introduce a bill to amend the legal framework of the Early Learning System, which itself was only established in 2018. The ELS would become the “Learning to Grow Agency,” its executive director appointed by the governor. That position’s salary would be set by law but could be “augmented by private sector funds,” according to a summary of the legislation released on Wednesday.

Exactly how this will work, however, is very unclear. The lines of authority already have been a source of contention between the Department of Education and the ELS; one can only hope that the 2020 debate on this issue doesn’t bog down in similar turf wars.

There’s also the question of how public funds would be distributed to private entities. When former Gov. Neil Abercrombie proposed a voucher system, the prospect of taxpayer money potentially going toward faith-based preschools became a stumbling block.

The goal at this stage should be to keep the debate focused squarely on how Hawaii can make the most of its limited resources, public and private, to reach keiki who need the boost.

A good education, extending all the way up to college, will require the state’s continued reform efforts at every level. But giving more children a way to take that first step is a worthy focus for lawmakers in 2020.