Governor renews call for pre-K education

Dedicating more state resources to facilitate early-childhood education was one of the first initiatives Gov. Neil Abercrombie touted in his State of the State address Tuesday morning.

“There is no more critical issue before us than early-childhood development and education,” Abercrombie said. “I look forward to strengthening relationships with the private and nonprofit sectors by the passage of the constitutional amendment to provide for partnerships in early education.”

The governor’s administration is pushing to amend the state constitution to allow the spending of public funds on private schools and preschools, many of which are religiously affiliated. Abercrombie also asked legislators Tuesday to support his plan to create 32 pre-kindergarten classrooms at public schools throughout the state, half of which would be on Neighbor Islands.

Abercrombie requested approximately $8 million more to support the state’s existing Preschool Open Doors program, a voluntary program that provides access to school readiness services that address children’s physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development, according to the governor’s office. Priority is given to underserved or at-risk children.

The money will help serve an additional 1,040 children and their families, he said.

While the governor’s proposal may have good intentions, lawmakers and island educators expressed concern about its implementation.

“I think one of the challenges will be making sure the children that are served are the ones who need it the most,” Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran said. “If the money goes to subsidize the children of parents who already planned to send their kids to preschool and not reach the kids who are at risk, I’m not sure that’s the kind of investment we really want.”

West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey said that while he was happy to hear 16 of the pre-kindergarten classrooms would be on Neighbor Islands, he worried that the additional classes would add more pressure to already limited resources.

State Department of Education schools “are already overcrowded and lacking facilities, so if we’re looking at expanding programs there, I hope there will be capital improvement funds for additional classrooms and facilities,” McKelvey said. “Without the proper facilities conducive to learning, our efforts will fall short.”

Local preschool directors were wary of what the governor’s push for public preschools would mean for their schools.

“It affects our enrollment, and also our pay for staffing,” Wailuku Union Church Preschool Director Kanani Kan Hai said. “If a teacher can make $25 at a DOE school starting pay, why wouldn’t she go?”

Overall, Kan Hai said the governor has “good intentions,” but the plan is not well thought out. If the state cuts its funding for subsidy programs like the Open Doors program, on which many parents rely on to enroll their kids at Wailuku Union Church Preschool, and redirects it to DOE, “what will that mean for us?” Kan Hai asked.

She added that the ratio at her private preschool is currently one teacher for every five students, whereas public schools often assign more than 20 students to one teacher.

St. Anthony Preschool Director Carlene Santos acknowledged that preschool is a critical part of childhood development, but she said she believes that the state should focus its money on supporting existing programs like Open Doors instead of trying to create new public classrooms.

“Funds should be put into those programs that are already in place,” Santos said. “That way, parents can decide which preschool they want their children to go to.”

With 55 days of the legislative session still to go, lawmakers said they’re committed to vetting constituents’ concerns in session.

The governor also supported up to $5 million in operating costs for invasive species programs, mentioning specifically the little fire ant that has found its way from the Big Island to Maui and Oahu in recent months.

“Having these extra positions for inspectors is critical,” McKelvey said. “Had we had extra inspectors, we could’ve caught these things at the point of entry before they got out to the stores and people’s yards.”

Mayor Alan Arakawa visited the Capitol last week to share some of his concerns with state lawmakers, including a request to add at least two positions to combat the invasive little fire ants, which hitchhiked to Maui on imports of Hawaiian tree ferns.

“The mayor has stated again and again that he is very concerned about the little fire ants which is why he has asked the state for more resources,” county spokesman Rod Antone said Tuesday. “We’re hoping that the $5 million that the governor said he’s endorsing to meet the operating costs of invasive species programs is a response to the mayor’s request.”

State Sen. J. Kalani English, who represents Hana, East Maui, Upcountry, Molokai and Lanai residents, said he hopes both the state and county invest more money into invasive species programs.

“These fire ants are very detrimental, and we have to get it under control,” English said. “We spend billions on bringing tourists here but no one’s going to come if they’re getting bitten by fire ants.”

English set up a state Emergency Environmental Workforce Program more than a decade ago, though the program has not been funded for several years. He said he believes that invasive species will be one of the big issues of this legislative session.

It’s an election year for Abercrombie, who was sworn into office in December 2010 after 20 years in Congress. As an accomplishment, he highlighted an $844 million general fund surplus and said it represents a turnaround of more than $1 billion since 2010.

“We are now entering a new phase,” Abercrombie said. “The administration’s package and supplemental budget do not rely on any new taxes or fees. On the contrary, I believe we may be able to reduce taxes in key areas.”

But state Sen. David Ige, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, cautioned after the speech that “surplus” is a loose term when there’s debt and when it was achieved in part by scaling back Abercrombie’s funding requests.

“If we had done everything that the governor requested, we wouldn’t be sitting on this carry-over balance we see today,” Luke said.

Ige is challenging the governor in the upcoming primary election.

Other initiatives the governor backed Tuesday include:

* Raising the minimum wage $1.50 to at least $8.75 starting in Jan. 2015. It is currently $7.25.

* Proposing tax exemptions for seniors age 65 and older.

* Providing support to programs that address homelessness.

* Drafting a comprehensive plan to build more prison facilities in Hawaii.

* Strengthening laws against domestic violence and human trafficking.

* Facilitating Resilient Hawaii Forums to address climate change issues.

* Requesting funding for early-intervention services for children under 3 years old with developmental delays.

KAOI AM 1110 AM AND 96.7 FM will rebroadcast the governor’s State of State speech at 7:05 a.m. today.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this story.