HONOLULU — Hawaii is the only state that prohibits government funding of private preschools, but that may change Tuesday.
Hawaii’s voters will be asked whether the state constitution should be amended so taxpayers can subsidize private preschool education.
Amendment 4, “The Hawaii State Funding for Private Early Childhood Education Programs,” asks:
“Shall the appropriation of public funds be permitted for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs, as provided by law, to help the State meet its goal of providing an early learning system for the children of Hawaii?”
The measure can be approved only if the amendment gets majority support.
Rep. Gene Ward, R-Hawaii Kai, said he supports the amendment.
“I see there is a divide in our country between the educated and uneducated. I believe this program can pump up education and help close that education gap,” Ward said. “”Education is the key survival for this nation. We cannot afford to be so far left behind.”
If the amendment passes, the state would set aside $125 million a year to fund the program, and that amount could increase in future years.
Rep. Bob McDermott, R-Aiea, said he doesn’t support the amendment, in large part because the state can’t afford it.
“There will be a huge tax increase to support the new program,” McDermott said.
“Campbell High School has not had air-conditioning on its campus for 50 years. At Nanikuli and Waianae High Schools, the dropout rate is 30 percent, 68 percent of who go to prison. This amendment is focused on the wrong things. It’s a baby-siting service as far as I am concerned.”
As Ballotpedia notes, Amendment 4 isn’t a voucher program, rather, it’s a direct payment to preschools. About 17,500 youngsters would be eligible.
Hawaii already provides vouchers through its Open Doors program, which subsidizes private preschool tuition for about 420 low-income families.
Under the proposed amendment, religious schools and organizations would not be eligible for funding, but nonprofit corporations and schools providing early childhood education and child-care facilities, elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities, could qualify. The state could regulate the curriculum.
The Hawaii State Teachers’ Association is opposed to the amendment, claiming it would subsidize wealthy private schools while taking money from public schools. Instead, the union supports establishing a taxpayer-funded preschool program through the existing state’s public education system.
Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige, the Democratic nominee for governor, is backed by the teachers’ union, so it was no surprise he sided with the teachers’ union in opposition during the past legislative session.
“We should first successfully implement early education programs in our public schools before considering spreading our limited tax dollars to private preschools. The amendment asks voters to approve a preschool program with no details on how much it will cost and how the program will work,” Ige said.
Meanwhile, the Good Beginnings Alliance and Children’s Action Network, which are leading the charge for the amendment, maintain, as Ward does, the state will give more children access to high-quality preschool and early learning experiences.
Proponents are spending a substantial sum on promoting the constitutional amendment. According to Ballotpedia, as of Oct. 28,, opponents have received $275,000 in contributions and spent $134,329; supporters raised $1,387,285 and spent $1,235,421.
The largest backers of the preschool initiative include the private Kamehameha Schools for native Hawaiian only students and The Omidyar Family Trust, established by EBay founder Pierre Omidyar, at $350,000.
The opposition is exclusively funded by the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education, Ballotpedia reports.