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Legislators expand child care program


Uncomfortable with Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s early education initiative, state lawmakers on Friday decided to expand an existing state child care program rather than embark on state-funded preschool.

Lawmakers would provide $6 million in fiscal year 2015 to expand Preschool Open Doors, a child care program overseen by the state Department of Human Services. The money would serve about 900 low-income 4-year-olds who would otherwise have been eligible for junior kindergarten, which is being eliminated at public schools in the 2014-2015 school year.

The Abercrombie administration had wanted about $25 million for a school readiness program that would have served 3,500 4-year-olds who would miss out on junior kindergarten. School readiness would have been a bridge to a more rigorous, high-quality early education program for all of the state’s 18,000 4-year-olds if voters approve a constitutional amendment next year allowing public money to be spent on private preschool.

But lawmakers on Friday deferred the early education program. Lawmakers will instead focus on final votes next week for the $6 million in extra spending on Preschool Open Doors and the constitutional amendment. The Hawaii State Teachers Association is urging lawmakers to reject the constitutional amendment, describing it as a school voucher program, so the final vote is uncertain.

“You start off with something ambitious, and you hope for the best, but we’re going to serve those children,” Terry Lock, the director of the Executive Office on Early Learning, said of the 900 low-income children in Preschool Open Doors.

“As they said, it’s just the beginning. The first step toward what we can really do for our children in terms of their early education.”

Sen. Jill Tokuda (D, Kailua-Kaneohe), the lead Senate negotiator on early education, and Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Waipio-Pearl Harbor), the lead House negotiator, said that more rigor and monitoring would be added to Preschool Open Doors.They both believe the $6 million expansion of Preschool Open Doors is a step toward state-funded preschool. Lawmakers also provided $1.1 million over two years for administrative costs.

“This will be the first time Hawaii is going to be codifying into law its commitment to its youngest children,” Tokuda said.

Takumi said Preschool Open Doors would have a “much more rigorous school readiness component.”

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