A key lawmaker wants Hawaii libraries to accommodate early learning classrooms as the state Legislature attempts to make good on its proposal to rapidly expand childcare services.
Last month, Gov. David Ige and House and Senate leaders unveiled a joint-legislative package that included an ambitious initiative to provide affordable childcare for young families. The package aims to address the state's high cost of living that is among the factors driving an exodus of residents from the state.
At the January press conference, state Rep. Justin Woodson, who chairs the House Committee on Higher and Lower Education, said the Legislature wants to build 100 early learning classrooms each year -- over a 10-year period -- serving three to four-year-old children.
A 2017 study by the University of Hawaii’s Center on the Family found the demand for childcare in the state greatly exceeded the supply. Although 64% of children need care because their parents work, childcare providers regulated by the Department of Human Service can only take in 25% of that group.
House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke thinks state libraries are a good option for locating some of the proposed new classrooms.
“This is going to be a model for the rest of the nation because libraries now days are seen as something that is being phased out,” she said. “Libraries provide an important function. Can you imagine if we open preschools, but quarter off a secure area at every library and introduce three-year-olds to a surrounding that already has books?”
Luke said State Librarian Stacey Aldrich is willing to include an early learning setting at the main state library in downtown Honolulu, where renovations are being considered. Aldrich could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Hawaii State Public Library System operates about 50 libraries across the state with an annual budget of roughly $40 million. While many of the libraries serve as community hubs, the system is riding several trends that are impacting its future, according to a 2014-2018 strategic plan. These include advances in digital media and technologies, heightened competition, demographic changes and financial constraints.
Aldrich also said in a 2018 Honolulu Magazine interview that library patrons who are mentally ill or homeless are more prevalent. So locating childcare classrooms in libraries could present safety issues that would need addressing.
Legislative leaders have also proposed a measure to move the Executive Office of Early Learning from the state Department of Education to the Department of Human Services.
Luke explained the move would build off of existing programs in DHS, such as one that verifies that early childhood workers have met the education and experience requirements for licensing for child care centers. She expects the proposal to be heard in a legislative committee next month.