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Early Education To Expand But Lawmakers Grapple With What That Means

Wayne Yoshioka/HPR

State lawmakers have recognized the need for affordable child care in the state, so much so that they’ve made it a part of a joint-legislative package negotiated by the governor and House and Senate leaders.

But a divide is emerging between those who want flexibility in qualifying child care or early learning teachers and those who say instructors must be well-trained in early childhood. And teacher qualifications impact the level of care and learning that could be provided in an expanded system.

A 2017 study by the University of Hawaii’s Center on the Family found the demand for child care in the state greatly exceeded the supply. Although 64% of children need care because their parents work, state Department of Human Service-regulated child care providers can only take in 25% of that group.

One of the major initiatives of the joint package is Senate Bill 3101 that aims to expand parents’ options for early learning opportunities for children between 3- and 4-years-old. The measure calls for moving the Executive Office of Early Learning, which currently operates Hawaii’s public preschool program within the Department of Education, to the Department of Human Services. It would also rename the office to the “Learning to Grow Agency.”

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke is one of the backers of the bill. She explains that in order to expand early learning in the state, there must be collaboration with the private sector -- something she says the Department of Education cannot carry out.

“About 20,000 kids every year, 3- and 4-year-olds do not have access to any type of preschools, child care or early education opportunities . . . number one because of finances and number two because it's not available in that area,” she said. “Part of it was really about providing child care and learning opportunities for children so that it helps working families go back to work.”

Luke envisions the early learning initiative as building off existing programs in the Department of Human Services, such as one that verifies early childhood workers meet the education and experience requirements for licensing child care centers.

The bill would establish a state goal of providing access to early learning programs to all 3- to 4-year-old children. In 2018, the National Institute for Early Education Research reported that only about 6% of the state’s three-year-olds and 7% of four-year-olds were enrolled in Hawaii’s public preschools. 

Under current state law, the Executive Office of Early Learning is responsible for children from prenatal care to their entry into kindergarten. The proposal would limit the agency's jurisdiction to only 3- and 4-year-olds.

State Rep. Justin Woodson, who chairs the House Lower and Higher Education Committee and supports the bill, said although the agency's focus would be narrowed, it would still be the state's  long-term goal to offer more programs for younger children.

“There seems to be a synergy within the community, a desire to want to concentrate on that particular age bracket first,” he said. “We can only build out so much within a certain amount of time. So that's why the concentration is on 3- and 4-year-olds right now.”

During the rollout of the joint-legislative package, Woodson said the goal is to build 100 new classrooms a year over the next decade. He said that these classrooms would not necessarily be defined as preschools.

“It’s important to note that this new proposal, the idea is to provide early learning opportunities,” he said. “That can be anything from a public pre-kindergarten classroom ... to daycare to also private sector preschool or pre-kindergarten classrooms. The idea is to offer families a whole menu of offerings and that way families can choose what is best for their children.”

While excited about the expansion of early learning opportunities, Robyn Chun, director of the University of Hawaii-Manoa Graduate Early Childhood Education Programs, worries about how the initiative might be carried out.

“I think there are two big challenges to expansion. One is facilities, of course,” she said. “But the real big question that I constantly come back to with all this legislation is: what is the infrastructure for the workforce?”

In other words, who will teach the children? There's already a shortage of preschool teachers, who must meet strict qualifying standards while earning less than instructors in K-12 grades.

To be a teacher in the current public preschool program, an instructor must complete a bachelor's degree and coursework in early childhood education and meet the Hawaii teacher standards board licensing requirements for a pre-kindergarten teacher.

According to the Hawaii State Teachers Association, there are 500 licensed preschool teachers within the Department of Education, but only a few are actually teaching preschool, likely because they can earn more in higher grades.

Luke said the requirement of having a four-year-degree in early learning may be making it unnecessarily difficult for other professionals, such as retirees who want to return to teaching, to staff preschool classrooms.

“I don’t think it’s right that we put up those barriers and require an early education degree,” she said. “Why would they go for four years and get an early learning degree when they can get a regular education degree and be a special education teacher and then get paid way more?”

She said that is why the bill is written broadly — allowing DHS to coordinate with the private sector to employ teachers who may not necessarily match existing standards for public preschool. 

“I don't think we should be concentrating on categorizing what is a preschool and what's not a preschool, what's child care,” Luke said. “We're very careful and respectful of the private providers. What we want to concentrate on is providing access to learning for a lot of these kids.”

However, Chun said there are key differences in early learning training compared to that for K-12 education. Early learning coursework covers such subjects as child development in social-emotional communication and working with families in the community.

The qualification of teachers affects the level of care that would provided in additional early learning classrooms.

“[Child] care is built around the assumption of providing basic health and safety. . . that's a baseline. I think we have to ask the question whether that's enough, particularly when you're talking about vulnerable families, families in stress,” Chun said.

“That takes some knowledge and understanding, and early childhood is a field where the research is interdisciplinary. It’s crossing over into knowledge of families and, almost like social work, social support and a network of understanding of child development,” she said.

Rep. Woodson noted that although the bill is looking to expand the early learning program, he is not in favor of dismantling public preschools and agrees with Chun that early learning coursework is important.

“The public pre-K program, that will not change, that will not be altered ... we’re going to continue to expand our public pre-K program. That is the intention," he said.

"But we're going to offer other early learning opportunities. And these are for families that want their children to be in some sort of early learning setting, but don't right now have that opportunity.”

Chun thinks that there needs to be more investment in training early education teachers and growing the field. She said UH has doubled the number of students graduating with early education degrees, but with the same number of faculty.

“If we want to build this, we need to invest in the infrastructure to build this,” she said. “The states that are more successful in both expanding out and maintaining that high level . . . are states that have done their homework and put effort into the development so that they can sustain their program over time.”

Lawmakers are expected to hear S.B. 3101 in committee sometime in February.

Ashley Mizuo
Born and raised on O’ahu, she’s a graduate of ‘Iolani School and has a BA in Journalism and Political Science from Loyola University Chicago and an MA in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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