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Editorial: Biden gives vital boost to families

Last month, when President Joe Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan was taking shape, Hawaii’s congressional delegation weighed in with support for the envisioned federal investment to help deliver much-needed overhauling of coastal roads, dams, bridges and other elements of the state’s strained, aging and eroding physical infrastructure.

Following Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress, delivered Wednesday, delegation members also rightly applauded the ambitious $1.8 trillion American Families Plan’s so-called human infrastructure elements. Among them: financing universal prekindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and providing free community college education for all.

Adding up to a whopping $4 trillion in spending and tax cuts to “Build Back Better” as pandemic-related challenges recede, the two plans are interconnected, in part, in that successful installation of future-focused physical infrastructure hinges on a capable work force — one that’s grounded in high-quality education that starts with preschool.

Under the American Families Plan, which the Biden administration touts as a path to delivering the “best-educated generation in U.S. history,” preschools would get a $200 billion investment, benefiting some 5 million children and saving the average family $13,000. Hawaii could surely benefit from such investment, given that the state’s public prekindergarten program ranks near the bottom nationally for how many kids it reaches.

According to the the National Institute for Early Education Research, Hawaii’s state-funded preschools served an estimated 4% of 4-year-olds in the 2019-20 school year. By contrast, 34% of 4-year-olds were served by state-funded preschools on average in the 44 states, the District of Columbia and Guam that have such programs.

Part of the reason for the comparatively small reach is due to a provision in Hawaii’s Constitution that prohibits state funds from being used to support private educational institutions, including child care programs and preschools. When public and private programs are combined, Hawaii is close to the national average for preschool enrollment — about 48% of 3- and 4-year-olds.

While that’s encouraging, given that the benefits of high-quality pre-K can stretch well beyond school entry, it’s equally concerning that only about half of the state’s kids are afforded this valuable launch. Hawaii’s preschool program has grown far too slowly since the Executive Office on Early Learning was established in 2015.

As the two infrastructure plans undergo debate at the U.S. Capitol, Hawaii should size up its preschool program for dramatic expansion, and explore cost-effective public-private options. For graduates of the K-12 system, Biden wants to allocate $109 billion for two years of free community college “so that every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate.”

To Hawaii’s credit, our university system is already making strides in this direction. In addition to operating community colleges that rank among the nation’s most affordable, state lawmakers in 2017 established the Hawaii Promise program, which provides “last-dollar” tuition assistance for qualifying students with needs not met by other forms of financial aid.

Community colleges should now be eyeing all possible alignments with the American Jobs Plan — dubbed a “blue-collar blueprint to build America” — by ramping up trades certification as well as pairing with four-year degree programs.

Arriving on the heels of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan’s COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus funding, it’s unclear how sticker shock will affect the the sweeping plans now on the table. What’s clear, though, is that many families in high-priced Hawaii stand to benefit from the president’s vision for the post-pandemic future.

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