By ANITA HOFSCHNEIDER
HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii lawmakers on Friday agreed on the final draft of a bill to fund a new school readiness program for late-born 4-year-olds who will lose services when the state’s junior kindergarten program expires in the 2014-15 school year.
Sen. Jill Tokuda said the bill provides $1.16 million over two years for administrative costs and $6 million in the second year for subsidies. She said the proposal will help more than 900 children.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie initially requested about $32 million to provide services for thousands of children. But he said the bill is a great start and will prioritize serving low-income and some middle-income families.
“I’m grateful to our legislators for recognizing this important step for the future of our keiki,” he said. “We are pleased that the amount provided by the Legislature will allow us to serve the children with the highest need, those most at risk of not attending a preschool program.”
The new program would build upon the state’s existing Preschool Open Doors program in the Department of Human Services.
Jacce Mikulanec, policy director for Good Beginnings Alliance, an organization that has advocated for statewide preschool, said that the proposal was a great first step that Hawaii can build upon. He said that next year, advocates may return to the Legislature to ask for additional funding.
Because Hawaii’s constitution doesn’t allow the state to fund private schools, the new school readiness program wouldn’t have the educational rigor of a preschool program. Lawmakers will be voting next week on a bill that would propose a constitutional amendment to allow the state to fund preschool.
Legislators chose not to advance a companion bill to the school readiness proposal that would have created a preschool program in 2015 if the constitutional amendment passes. Lawmakers may revisit the proposal next session, Tokuda said.
Critics of the proposal have worried that it is a waste of money and say the Legislature should prioritize funding existing programs rather than starting a new program.
The bill goes next to the House and Senate.