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Hawaiʻi is a leader in early education investment but not access or enrollment, report says

Student-teacher ratio is one component of high-quality preschool.
Barnaby Wasson
Student-teacher ratio is one component of high-quality preschool.

When it comes to early education in the U.S., Hawaiʻi is near the top of the class.

"Hawaiʻi is one of the leaders in state funding for preschool per child," says Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Friedman-Krauss is referring to the institute's annual Preschool Yearbook — an annual report ranking states and their early education efforts. NIEER has released one every year for the past two decades.

NIEER released the latest report last week. It focused on the 2020-2021 school year — the first full school year during the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, NIEER found the state invested $12,346 per child in the early education system.

"Definitely well above the $6,000 per child national average," she said.

Friedman-Krauss is the lead author of the 2021 yearbook. She told HPR the state is also a leader when it comes to the quality of its pre-kindergarten programs.

"In our yearbook this year, Hawaiʻi had two programs. One was the Executive Office on Early Learning — that program meets all 10 of our quality standard benchmarks," she said. "They're one of the five programs to meet all 10 of our benchmarks."

Sophia McCullough

The other program, from the public charter school commission, met nine of NIEER's ten benchmarks.

While the state is a leader in quality and investment, it isn't in access or enrollment.

The state ranked 44 out of 45 states surveyed in the U.S. because it only reached 2% of 4-year-olds across the Islands. Although the pandemic played a role in enrollment rates, prior to 2020, only 4% of children were enrolled. The state does not serve children 3 years old and younger in its pre-kindergarten programs.

State lawmakers worked to address issues with access this legislative session. One is the lack of preschool facilities in the state — especially in rural areas.

House education chair Justin Woodson told HPR the state would need roughly 45,000 seats in order to accommodate every family that has a 3-year-old or 4-year-old.

"Right now, we have about 18,000 seats," he said. "So we're going to have to either renovate space or build new classrooms to accommodate that need of physical space."

To support preschool construction, Woodson introduced House Bill 2000 this session. The proposal allocates $200 million to the Schools Facilities Authority for renovation or construction projects expanding preschools.

Last week, HB 2000 was approved out of conference committee. It currently awaits a floor vote in both chambers. If approved, it will go to Gov. David Ige for consideration.

Another challenge slowing pre-K expansion is recruiting and retaining qualified early educators.

"A big reason that we, and many other states, are seeing declines and people working in early childhood education is that the pay is not great," said Deborah Zysman, executive director of the advocacy group Hawaii Children's Action Network. "That's true if you're working in the public preschool. That's true if you're working in community-based preschools."

SB 2701 would have created a pilot subsidy program for current early educators — ensuring they get paid at least $18 an hour. But it didn't make it past conference committee last week.

Despite these challenges, Woodson said the report shows Hawaiʻi is on the right track.

"We still have one of the best public pre-K systems in the entire country, and arguably globally. So you can say that if your child went through a public pre-K classroom, then at that point after they finish, they are internationally competitive," he told HPR.

"We figured out the quality component, which is half the equation. That, in itself, is not easy," Woodson said. "But now the second half of the equation is access and expansion."

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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