ACLU: Hawaii preschool aid unconstitutional


HONOLULU — The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii wants a court to order the state to stop providing preschool tuition subsidies for children attending religious institutions.

The state’s Preschool Open Doors program unconstitutionally violates separation of church and state, ACLU Hawaii says in a lawsuit filed in Circuit Court earlier this week.

The program provides subsidies to qualified families so their children can attend licensed preschools.

While families have a right to educate their children in religious institutions, it’s unconstitutional for public funds to go toward religious teachings, the lawsuit said. The subsidies allow public funds to be “funneled directly to these religious institutions for the purpose of instructing children regarding religious observances,” the lawsuit said.

A Department of Human Services spokeswoman said the department was reviewing the lawsuit and had no comment.

State Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Jill Tokuda told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser the lawsuit caught her off guard.

“I think it would have been preferable if the ACLU had concerns that it could have been addressed outside of a lawsuit,” she said.

She said the subsidy goes to the parent, who chooses where to enroll a child.

The program allows an eligible family to receive up to $710 a month for a child to attend any of the approximately 1,000 child care programs licensed by the state, including about 650 preschools.

Hawaii is one of 11 states without state-funded preschool.

Lawmakers last year scaled down the governor’s $25 million school-readiness proposal into a $6 million expansion of Preschool Open Doors. The draft state budget advanced by the Senate this week includes an additional $3 million for the program.