Voters Still Split on Publicly Funded Private Preschools


Preschool plan needs clarity, supporters say

A constitutional amendment to send taxpayer funds to private schools will be up for a vote

By Derrick DePledge

Advocates for state-funded preschool believe they will have to better explain why taxpayer money should go to private preschools for a constitutional amendment to pass in November 2014.

Voters will be asked to amend the state Constitution so the state can eventually roll out a preschool program for all 4-year-olds, of which there are about 18,000. The state would need the capacity at both public and private preschools to achieve the goal, but the Constitution prohibits public money from being spent on private education.

A new poll released Thursday by Good Beginnings Alliance, an interest group that favors expanding preschool options, continued to show overwhelming support for the concept of state-funded preschool. Eighty-two percent interviewed by QMark Research favored the idea of free or subsidized preschool, up from 74 percent last year.

But just 52 percent supported a constitutional amendment that would allow public money to go to private preschools. The poll was taken from June 21 to July 7 among 500 registered voters statewide. The margin of error was 4.9 percentage points.

“Anecdotally, when we’ve been talking to people, the problem that people seem to have is the word ‘private.’ I think it has a connotation that people think, ‘Oh, private school, I don’t know that I want public dollars going for that,’” Deborah Zysman, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance, said at a news conference at Stepping Stones Academy, a child care center in Kakaako.

A public education campaign for the ballot question over the next year will likely include an explanation that existing nonprofit and family-run schools are private schools that could be involved in a state-funded preschool initiative.

“We want to help mom and dad gain access to quality preschool. We want to help their kids have the opportunity to start school on day one, just like their affluent peers, ready to go and ready for a productive future,” said Rep. Taka­shi Ohno (D, Nuu­anu-Li­liha-Alewa Heights), vice chairman of the House Education Committee.

A reluctant state Legislature agreed to place the constitutional amendment on the ballot and to provide $6 million to expand Preschool Open Doors, an existing state child care program, to cover some 900 low-income 4-year-olds who will no longer be eligible for junior kindergarten when it is eliminated next school year. But lawmakers rejected the Abercrombie administration’s proposal for an early childhood education program that could serve all of the state’s 4-year-olds if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters.

State Sen. Jill Tokuda (D, Kailua-Kaneohe), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said she and others would likely try to get the early education program approved next session so voters would know what to expect if the constitutional amendment passes. She said lawmakers would also consider adding money to Preschool Open Doors so more 4-year-olds could benefit in the short term.

Tokuda said outlining the early education program before the vote could have “some of those questions addressed, some of those fears allayed, and so when they do vote on that ballot initiative, they can vote with confidence” about the details.

House Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson (R, Fort Shafter-Moana­lua Gardens-Alia­manu) said many lawmakers remain concerned that the early education program, which could cost the state more than $125 million a year if fully implemented, has not been fleshed out.

“I don’t think anybody disputes the purpose of it being noble, but to make that fundamental change, what does it look like on the ground when implemented?” he asked. “That may reassure some people.”


Voters Still Split on Publicly Funded Private Preschools

The results of a recent poll that asked registered Hawaii voters about their attitudes toward a state-funded preschool system suggest that most people agree preschool’s important in early childhood development.

But only about half of them — 52 percent — say they would vote yes to amend the constitution so that public monies could be used to fund private preschools. Forty-three percent of votes say they would vote no on the amendment, while 5 percent said they didn’t know. Lawmakers this year passed a bill allowing the constitutional amendment to be placed on the 2014 ballot.

The poll was commissioned by the Good Beginnings Alliance and conducted by QMark Research among 400 registered voters statewide. The margin of error was 4.90.

Good Beginnings Alliance Executive Director Deborah Zysman said at a press conference today that organizations plan on educating the public about the initiative and expect support for the con am to expand in the coming months.

Other highlights from the poll:

·    92 percent agree that preschool is very or somewhat important in early childhood development

·    82 percent either strongly or somewhat support a state program that would provide funding to ensure all 4 year olds have access to preschool

·    82 percent believe in free or subsidized preschool for Hawaii’s kids