Hanabusa, Schatz differ on changing Constitution


Hanabusa, Schatz differ on changing Constitution

By Derrick DePledge

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa both want to expand opportunities for preschool in Hawaii, but they are divided on a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that will ask voters whether public money should be used for private preschool.

The constitutional amendment is critical to Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s plan to eventually provide preschool for all of the state’s 17,200 4-year-olds at a cost of about $125 million a year. The state wants to give parents access to public and private preschool options, but the state Constitution now prohibits public money from going to private education.

“I’m supporting the amendment,” Schatz said in a phone interview. “My role on the federal side is to do what I can to help to get funding for our education programs and work with President Obama to make sure that the money is there for all parents to be able to send their kids to preschool.

“My view on this issue is very simple: Every kid deserves a fair shot at starting on the right foot. Early brain research shows that this kind of attention in education is critical to a child’s development.”

Hanabusa, who is challenging Schatz in the Democratic primary, opposes the amendment. The congresswoman said there are unanswered questions about whether the shift would lead to a private voucher program and how it would affect the separation of church and state.

“So the problem I see with voting for this constitutional amendment now is the public doesn’t know what they’re authorizing,” she said by phone. “I think, instinctively, people may think, ‘Hey, this is great, because my kid’s going to preschool and I’m going to be able to get the state to pay for it. I’m going to get a voucher, in essence, because I want to pick which preschool my kid’s going to go to.’ So it’s really a voucher that I think people, in their minds, are thinking about.”

Hanabusa said supporters of the amendment have an “obligation to show the people how this is going to be implemented,” adding, “Because, right now, if you vote for this constitutional amendment the way it stands, they can come back and do whatever they want.”

While the constitutional amendment is primarily a state issue, the debate does have federal reach. President Barack Obama’s Preschool for All initiative would provide federal money to states with high-quality early childhood education programs aimed at children from low-to-moderate income families. States would have to invest matching funds and have performance standards, such as qualified teachers and data assessment.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without a state-funded early learning program. The state could be eligible for federal grants this year by showing a plan to develop a high-quality preschool program.

“From our perspective, we are supporting a delivery system that has as many components as possible, as many options as possible, to best serve our kids,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance, an advocacy group that supports both public and private preschool options for parents.

A Hawaii Poll taken in February found that 62 percent of those interviewed supported the constitutional amendment, a number likely inflated by voters who instinctively favor expanding preschool, regardless of the details. Forty-two percent of children enter kindergarten in Hawaii without first going to preschool.

The state Legislature has been slow to accept Abercrombie’s early childhood education initiative. Many lawmakers have doubts about whether the state should make a $125 million per year commitment without greater detail about how the state would ensure quality.

Last year, lawmakers agreed to provide $6 million to expand Preschool Open Doors, an existing state child care program. This year, lawmakers authorized $3 million for the governor’s plans for preschool at a few dozen public school campuses.

Both investments are meant to help children, particularly those from low-income families, who would otherwise be eligible for junior kindergarten, which is ending this year.

But lawmakers refused to pass legislation that would create an early childhood education program if voters approve the constitutional amendment in November, arguing that it was premature. That means voters will not know the exact shape of the program when they cast their ballots.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association wants preschool at public schools with qualified teachers but has fought against using public money for private preschool, comparing the idea to a private voucher program.

“If it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” said Wil Okabe, president of the teachers union. “What we’re saying is that once you give public funds to private entities, it’s going to be a voucher.”

One of the issues for the teachers union in the primary is Schatz’s co-sponsorship of the Ready to Learn Act, a bill by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that would award competitive matching grants to states for public and private pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, is also a co-sponsor of Murray’s bill, which has the backing of the National Education Association, the HSTA’s parent union.

Okabe said the NEA advocated for the bill because some states may not be able to provide preschool in remote areas underserved by public schools. Hawaii’s statewide public school system, Okabe says, does have the ability to offer preschool.

The HSTA endorsed Hanabusa in December, without the authorization of the NEA, and then had to justify the recommendation during a tense meeting before the NEA in Washington in February. The NEA has not made an endorsement in the primary.

Article X, Section 1, of the state Constitution prohibits public money from being used to support or benefit private education, a ban meant to help keep public schools free from sectarian control. The only exception is for special purpose revenue bonds that help nonprofit corporations provide early childhood education and care facilities and that assist nonprofit private schools, including religious schools.

Hanabusa questioned how the state would implement a new early childhood education program, saying the state is scrambling to serve the children who can no longer go to junior kindergarten and that Abercrombie just signed a bill into law this month on mandatory kindergarten.

“So we’re going to ask people to vote for a constitutional amendment where we don’t know how it’s going to work, we don’t know if it’s a voucher system, we don’t know about how you’re going to handle the separation of church and state, because by putting it in the Constitution, you’re basically authorizing it to be used for that,” she said.

Schatz said he understands the objections by the teachers union and others that the constitutional amendment could lead to something akin to a private voucher program.

“I understand and respect the concerns and I’ll continue to oppose vouchers,” the senator said. “But this is about helping 4-year-olds to get prepared for kindergarten. Kids are only 4 years old once and we have an obligation to do everything in our power to give them the best possible chance at succeeding. And that’s what I’ll focus on.”