Preschool initiative lacks needed details



Preschool initiative lacks needed details

The advocates for a state-funded early-learning system are learning that persuading voters to authorize the use of public money for private preschools may not be a slam-dunk proposition. If a constitutional amendment seeking to enable that is to pass, they have a lot of work ahead to help raise the comfort level around this idea.

On Thursday the Good Beginnings Alliance, an interest group that supports early-childhood development and school readiness, released the results of a poll conducted by QMark Research. The general concept of free or subsidized preschool is gaining in favor, according to the survey, with 82 percent now supporting the idea compared with 74 percent a year ago.

However, as the concept moves closer to reality, people feel less sure of their position. Only 52 percent said they support the constitutional amendment that will be put before voters next year.

The ballot question will be: “Shall the appropriation of public funds be permitted for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs that shall not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex or ancestry, as provided by law?”

The question itself seems straightforward enough, but judging by the range of testimony submitted last session, people have myriad concerns, said state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chaired the Senate Education Committee.

For example, she said, they want to know how it will be phased in and at what cost, whether it would be treated as a voucher program, how the church-state separation would be maintained and whether any preschool programs would be directly administered as state programs.

All valid concerns, given the potentially huge commitment of public funds.

During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1084 to put that language on the ballot and enacted a short-term “school readiness” bill, SB 1093, to take care of an immediate concern for “late-born” children too young to enter kindergarten at public schools. The junior kindergarten program available at some schools is being canceled come next school year.

To accommodate such children for the near term, the Legislature opted for a limited expansion of an existing school-readiness program called Preschool Open Doors. Designed as a voucher program to subsidize preschool for poorer children, it now would be available to assist families with children turning 5 too late to qualify for kindergarten.

What was left on the legislative conference-committee table was SB 1095, which would have created a permanent early childhood education program. Taxpayers are rightly wary of committing a great deal of money — estimates put that at more than $125 million a year — before they see all the nuts and bolts.

The state has not yet made the case why jumping into the deep end of a full-scale statewide program, complete with its own bureaucracy, would be a wiser course than growing the system more gradually and organically, through targeted expansions of Preschool Open Doors.

Rules for qualifying as a Preschool Open Doors program are being tightened to make sure state funds are well spent; if there’s to be a larger-scale initiative, the public deserves to know how the state will screen preschools to ensure rigorous standards.

“What I would like to see happen is come back with a version of the early-learning measure (SB 1095) that addresses many of the questions and puts to rest fears people have,” Tokuda said.

She’s right. And unless that happens, getting an amendment passed is going to be too heavy a lift.