Lt. Gov. Luke's Ready Keiki plan aims to build 80 pre-K classrooms within the next year
Inside a first-grade classroom at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Honolulu, Jacqueline Ornellas began thinking of all the possibilities this room could be used for.
"This classroom right now is holding first graders, but it used to hold preschool, my special education preschool, but I don't have that many now," Ornellas said Tuesday morning. "I'd like to be able to convert it to a regular public preschool so that some of my special education kids can be included."
Right outside of this room, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke outlined her plans to help get young children into preschool and offer early education statewide.
“This is decades in the works,” Luke announced. “This is an important part that will not just be important for preschoolers, but working families as well.”
Lincoln Elementary, Luke’s alma mater, was the site of the initiative’s Tuesday morning press conference on a new program called Ready Keiki.
“The majority of our kids are disadvantaged, and what that means is most of (the parents) can't afford preschool,” Ornellas said.
In 2020, the state Legislature set a state goal to provide pre-K access to children aged 3 and 4 by 2032. With that in mind, lawmakers appropriated $200 million in 2022 to build and retrofit classrooms to make that happen.
It’s with this money Luke has engaged in public and private partnerships to expand preschool access.
About half of preschool-aged children, typically those who are 3 and 4 years old, don’t have access to preschool in Hawaiʻi. With about 20% opting out entirely, that leaves about 9,300 children without access, Luke said.
“Out of 9,300, if we place about 20 kids per classroom, it amounts to 465 classrooms,” Luke said. “(That is) not unreasonable on an unapproachable number.”
Ready Keiki wants 80 classrooms open by 2024.
Within the state Department of Education's public school system, more than 50 new preschool classrooms have been identified for either renovation, rehabilitation or to build a new classroom. Additionally, about 30 private charter school rooms will open up as well.
A classroom renovation is estimated at $1 million, and a new build could be $2 million. Modular and portable classrooms may cut back expenses, or create new rooms in existing public schools or businesses.
“We are looking at a mixed-delivery system, so it’s not going to be one-size-fits-all where everything will be through a public-preschool program,” Luke said. "Other ideas include possible tax incentives to businesses offering childcare subsidies, and expanding the state’s pre-existing Preschool Open Door program that offers subsidiaries to families with children aged 4."
“There is also capacity in the state’s Preschool Open Doors program, and so we will also be asking the state Legislature to expand that program to include 3-year-olds, and allocate $40 million to increase private provider subsidies to support expanded access to lower-income families,” Luke said.
However, educator shortages may loom over the project. Luke said Ready Keiki has identified about 1,000 educators, and DOE public schools and the University of Hawaiʻi system have signed on to create teaching classrooms and pathways for a workforce pipeline. But that may not be enough.
“Discussions about early childhood care and education must start with the people who make it possible: the workforce,” Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network Speaks! Executive Director Deborah Zysman said in a statement. “To reach universal access for children from birth to kindergarten, we must double, if not triple, that workforce.”
Early childhood care professionals typically make less than $40,000 a year, Zysman said.
“Increasing their wages must be a public investment,” Zysman said. “Childcare providers and preschools regularly operate on razor-thin margins while the families they serve struggle to afford tuition. We cannot ask childcare providers and families to carry a greater burden."
Efforts like this have started before.
In 2020, under former Gov. David Ige's administration, lawmakers met to discuss affordable housing, raising the minimum wage, putting funding into schools and universal pre-K. They met for two months before the pandemic shut it down, Senate President Ron Kouchi recalled.
"We all agreed that we weren't going to stop our efforts,” Kouchi said. “Last session we passed the minimum wage and earned income tax credit bill, we committed the money for the school facilities, we committed a large amount of money for affordable housing. This is the last of the four pillars that we were trying to build on dating back to 2020.”
For Ornellas, the issue hits close to home.
"I have two kids, and one went to preschool," Ornellas said. "The younger one that went through preschool, huge difference. She is much more academically successful."