Funding for Hawaii preschools remains uncertain


HONOLULU — Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s plan for state-funded preschool is still in limbo despite a rapidly approaching deadline.

Abercrombie has said the proposal is his top priority this session, but has struggled to get lawmakers to agree to fund it. The Senate budget draft set aside several million less for the plan than Abercrombie requested, and the House didn’t fund it at all.

A committee of House and Senate negotiators met Tuesday to consider two bills creating the program, but postponed voting until Thursday. Sen. Jill Tokuda says lawmakers are still waiting to get approval for appropriations from the House and Senate money committees.

The budget negotiating committee is planning to meet for the last time on Tuesday evening. Lawmakers must approve the final versions of all bills by Friday.

Part of the challenge in getting the funding approved is that Abercrombie’s proposal has two parts and requires the state to partner with private schools to deliver the services.

The state constitution prohibits public funding of private schools. That means Hawaii residents would need to approve a constitutional amendment in 2014 before the state could fund early childhood education.

But Abercrombie still wants to create a new school readiness program for the 2014-2015 school year. Advocates say that while the program wouldn’t technically be educational, it would still help children develop and be more prepared for kindergarten. Critics have said it’s a glorified child care program that would waste valuable resources.

Abercrombie also wants lawmakers to pass a bill approving an early childhood education program in 2015 to build on and expand on the school readiness program.

Sen. Jill Tokuda said advocates are focusing on getting funding for the school readiness bill, rather than the early childhood education program, because the school readiness program would start sooner.

“That’s the critical component,” she said.