POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 13, 2010
The drop in the number of Hawaii children entering kindergarten without key skills comes as no surprise. Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie was right during this year's campaign in blaming the shortfall of state funds for education of disadvantaged children. His challenge now is to restore, or innovate, early-education programs before the economy has fully recovered.
Under Gov. Linda Lingle's administration, cutbacks of state subsidies to low-income parents for preschool tuition last February have meant that households that had paid $120 a month for one child's enrollment now pay $540.
Latest figures show a drop in the percentage of kindergartners statewide who attended preschool in the past two years. The number of kindergartners from low-income households has risen by 12 percent since the 2006-07 school year to 51 percent. Without preschool experience, children are more likely to fall behind in kindergarten and continue to struggle in future years.
"They don't know how to color or (other) basic things about schooling -- how to sit still, how to be with kids their age, how to separate from their parents," Kuhio Elementary School Principal Evelyn Aczon Hao told the Star-Advertiser's Mary Vorsino. Such a beginning, of course, has lasting consequences.
The question essentially is whether to pursue state-funded preschool to bolster new students' chances of classroom success. The answer is yes. Low-performing schools will be chronically consigned to the academic basement if their students don't get help -- and get it early. What makes sense is to provide preschool aid to those at-risk areas or school complexes where students are known to need help, to give that crucial early-learning boost.
And if state subsidies are restored in these sluggish budgetary times, better guidelines must be attached to ensure the funds are used for educational/learning programs. The state should not be paying for babysitting or a relative's child-care services, but rather, investing in quality and meaningful ways to prepare lower-income kids for prime-time learning.
Studies show that, generally, it's the economically disadvantaged children who are entering school without the necessary skills, said David Tom, director of public policy at Good Beginnings Alliance.
"We're clearly concerned with the percentage of children who are unable to avail themselves of preschool."
That must be remedied.
Abercrombie said during his campaign that he would appoint a Cabinet-level director of a new Department of Early Childhood to integrate early-childhood services now spread among several state agencies, and would work in partnership with private providers. This new department, Abercrombie envisioned, "will assure that all chidren, including those in families with low incomes, can realistically access high-quality childcare and preschool services."
That's a daunting task, made even more so now that the new governor has already given out $67 million from the state's hurricane relief fund to end teacher furloughs on classroom instruction days in public schools.
The task of improving education at the earliest stages of a child's development may not seem as dramatically immediate as the furloughs -- but the investment in preschool now toward positive results in the near future is just as vital.