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Invest in early education

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Improving the results of public education will remain an elusive goal as long as children are unprepared to learn at the moment they first walk through the door.

Hawaii is one of only a dozen states that lacks a state-funded preschool program. What has existed for four years is a junior kindergarten program, designed for children born too late in the year to enter regular kindergarten classes at public schools. But it’s never been separately funded and, as a result, only about one-third of the state’s schools have cobbled together the budget to staff a stand-alone junior-K program. It’s now scheduled to be discontinued with the 2012 class of late-born children.

While some parents and teachers consider this a regrettable step, the fact remains that the $30 million spent annually on junior kindergarten could be spent more efficiently in a cooperative program with private providers to launch preschool instruction for as many public school students as possible.

There’s little doubt that investment in early education is a wise policy for the state, one that’s been advocated for years by the state’s P-20 Initiative, a coalition of leaders representing the continuum of education from preschool through university levels.

Last year, the Good Beginnings Alliance published a study, "The Economic Benefits of Investments in Early Education for Hawaii." The finding by its principal investigator — Clive Belfield, an economist at Queen’s College and Columbia University in New York — was that every dollar spent on a well-planned early education system ultimately would save $4.20. The projections envision both the general economic boost that comes from improvements such as an educated workforce as well as the averted expenditures on future welfare and criminal-justice programs and other social-service costs.

This was only the latest research to bolster the argument for early learning. It echoes and amplifies "School Readiness in Hawaii," a 2008 report by the University of Hawaii and Aloha United Way, which listed access to high-quality early childhood education among the components needed to increase student school readiness and future achievement.

And that increase is critical. Elisabeth Chun, the alliance executive director, said that the most recent results of the annual Hawaii State School Readiness Assessment show 60 percent of incoming kindergartners have attended preschool, a declining percentage. And given that the assessment also shows less than 75 percent of children test as ready to begin their classroom experience, some correlation between preschool and readiness seems clear.

A plan proposed by the Early Learning Educational Task Force in 2008 set out a 10-year plan to offer high-quality early learning opportunities to all of the state’s 4-year-olds at a cost of $145 million.

Certainly diverting the funds from junior kindergarten can’t meet the resource needs of this plan, but lawmakers and educators need to place focus in the next legislative session on ways to turn those dollars into a down payment on a truly desirable asset: universal preschool for Hawaii’s keiki.

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