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Campaign raises awareness of Hawaii preschool

    Lahaina Pililaau, left, age 3 of Makaha, Hawaii learning how to count with help from his mother Ninia Elsey, right, as his brother Manalei Pililaau looks on at Makaha Elementary School.

HONOLULU >> Even though Hawaii voters rejected allowing public money to be spent on private preschool programs, supporters of the ballot measure say they’re glad the campaign raised public awareness of early childhood education.

“More people are talking about early education than ever before,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Good Beginnings Alliance, which pushed for a yes vote on the question posed to voters in Tuesday’s general election.

Supporters contend a public-private partnership is a cost-effective way to help children in a state where nearly half enter kindergarten without any preschool.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association objected, saying it would lead to vouchers to attend expensive private preschools.

Now both sides say they want to see how the other devotes resources into finding a way to achieve public preschool without relying on a network of private providers.

Teachers association President Wil Okabe suggested that the Good Beginnings Alliance’s Children’s Action Network, which campaign spending records show received $500,000 from Kamehameha Schools and $350,000 from the Omidyar Family Trust, pump some of that money into legislation that would allow for a public preschool system within the state Department of Education.

Zysman asked: Will the union mobilize its teachers to fight for preschool, especially when they’re faced with other pressing issues such as pay and classroom air conditioning?

“I’ve never seen HSTA have early education as a priority,” she said.

But they both agree that what happens next largely depends on the administration of Gov.-elect David Ige, who was against the proposal to amend Hawaii’s constitution that prohibits public funds paying for private educational programs. One reason for his opposition is that private preschools aren’t in the communities that need them the most, Ige said.

Okabe said he’d like to see Ige restore the public school system’s junior kindergarten, which was eliminated this school year. It would simply be a matter of changing back the birthdate requirements for when children can enter kindergarten, Okabe said.

But Ige said Friday it’s not that simple.

“There are lots of issues involved with that,” he said. “You know, to change the entry age again after just changing it is another huge, huge disruption to the process. So you know we have to make that assessment about whether there will be value in changing the entry age at this point after we’ve gone through that whole process.”

A priority of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s failed re-election campaign was to offer state-funded preschool to Hawaii’s 17,000 4-year-olds using a combination of public and private preschool options.

But the state attorney general pointed out the constitution’s prohibition, which led to the ballot question. Hawaii is the only state with a constitution that bars public money paying for private preschool.

The attorney general’s interpretation left programs like Keiki Steps without any state funding. The program — where children attend preschool class alongside their caregivers such as parents, aunts or grandparents– received state money in the past, said Kanoe Naone, CEO of INPEACE, which runs the free programs in low-income communities where there are limited preschool options.

“I wish the attorney general hadn’t taken such a narrow focus,” she said.

With Keiki Steps’ federal funding set to run out at the end of the year, INPEACE has launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise $250,000 by Christmas Eve.

Associated Press Writer Cathy Bussewitz contributed to this report.

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