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Report: Hawai‘i pre-K enrollment and access remain low, quality ranks high

 Early educator observing the activities of two toddlers at the UH Mānoa Children’s Center
University of Hawaiʻi
Early educator observing the activities of two toddlers at the UH Mānoa Children’s Center

Hawai‘i is still trending behind other states for public preschool enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds, according to a national report released Thursday.

The National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, ranked the state 45th for 4-year-old enrollment and 32nd for 3-year-olds.

"The access ranking speaks to the fact that they're only reaching a few children in the state," said Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at the NIEER at Rutgers University. "Even though it's small, they're only reaching a small percentage of the 4-year-olds and even smaller percentage of the 3-year-olds."

But there's still optimism after Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke plans to serve all 3- and 4-year-olds by 2032, including building and renovating 80 new classrooms by next year.

This year, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 941 to build more teacher housing by appropriating funds for the School Facilities Authority to do the job. The measure awaits the governor's final approval.

Steven Barnett, the senior co-director of NIEER, said the lieutenant governor's plan is off to a great start.

"But it's starting from the bottom and moving on up. This is really important in Hawai‘i. This is a tremendous change. It's not going from serving half the kids to all the kids. It's going from serving very few children to a program that will serve everyone," Barnett said.

"The sheer number of teachers and classrooms that need to be added and Hawaiʻi is stunning. But again, I think the lieutenant governor's office has put out plans. And you can see just how fast the state wants to move on that," he added.

Hawai'i did meet NIEER's standard benchmark for the 2021-2022 school year. Other states that met their mark were Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and Rhode Island.

Enrollment in state-funded Hawai'i preschools increased almost five times, from 158 to 549. According to the report, state spending per child enrolled in preschool was $12,590.

Barnett said seven states recently committed to universal pre-K, including Hawai‘i, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey.

He said it matters if these states will stick to their promise.

"The group of them as a whole or maybe not so much a wave as a tsunami of change," Barnett said. "Of course, that depends on whether the promises are actually fulfilled. Looking across the past 20 years, we've seen that promises for universal pre-K are not always kept. Some states that committed long ago quit making progress."

"So it's going to be very important that leaders and voters in these seven states have not just got the message now, have not just learned from the research, that this matters for their children and families, but that they stay with this resolutely for the long term," he continued.

Cassie Ordonio is the culture and arts reporter for Hawaiʻi Public Radio. She previously worked for Honolulu Civil Beat, covering local government, education, homelessness and affordable housing. Contact Cassie at cordonio@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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