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Candidates outline early-education goals


Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie said yesterday that if elected governor he would create a state Department of Early Childhood and restore funding for Healthy Start, a child-abuse prevention program, while Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona said he would propose a tax credit to help middle-class families afford preschool for their children.

The two major candidates for governor appeared at a forum at the state Capitol sponsored by One Voice for Hawaii’s Children, a group of early-childhood education advocates. Dr. Thomas Pollard, a nonpartisan candidate, also participated in the forum, moderated by KHON’s Gina Mangieri and held as part of Children and Youth Day.

Abercrombie, a Democrat, said the new department would integrate early-childhood services now spread across several state departments. His campaign has not said how much creating a new department would cost, but has said it would not involve a substantial increase in state spending. The department would likely merge existing preschool and child-care services and build on the structure of an Early Learning Council established by the state Legislature.

"We cannot make decisions based on anything other than what are our core values and the priorities that come from those values," Abercrombie said. "And if the child is first — and that child should be first — then the priorities that come for spending are with the child."

The Lingle administration cut spending on Healthy Start, a nationally recognized program that screens new mothers to prevent child abuse, because of the state’s budget deficit, but lawmakers diverted some money from the rainy-day fund to help keep the program alive.

Aiona, a Republican, said he would try to maintain existing levels of state spending on early-childhood education but warned that the state must live within its financial means. The father of four children and former Family Court judge said, however, that he would propose a tax credit to help middle-class families with preschool. His campaign has not said how much the tax credit would cost or how it would be financed.

Aiona said the state needs pragmatic answers, not what he described as "pie in the sky" or "silver bullet" promises.

Aiona challenged Abercrombie to explain how he would pay for a new Department of Early Childhood or a fully financed Healthy Start. He also questioned the former congressman’s promise to maximize federal dollars available to the state, arguing that the federal money — if available at all — would likely be temporary and could depend on the political makeup of Congress and the White House.

"The reality is we do have some challenges right now," he said. "And the question that Mr. Abercrombie has never answered, point by point, specifically, is, Where is the money going to come from?"

Abercrombie said he was saddened that Aiona thought early-childhood education was "pie in the sky."

"It’s very sad to me to hear services for children being stipulated as ‘pie in the sky’ or that somehow it isn’t pragmatic to be able to deal with what’s required for children," he said.

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