HONOLULU (AP) - Surrounded by preschoolers, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill Monday that expands early childhood education.
Even though it's a far cry from what Abercrombie envisioned, he declared, "No other piece of legislation this year was more important." The bill funds $1.16 million for administrative costs and $6 million in subsidies to help 900 children.
He originally sought more than twice that amount to help thousands of kids who will lose services when the state's junior kindergarten program expires in the 2014-15 school year. It's heralded as a step toward Hawaii achieving a state-funded early education program.
"It provides a concrete investment in Hawaii's efforts to join the vast majority of states that direct resources toward school readiness and early learning," said state Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
Abercrombie signed the bill at Washington Place, where he was joined by youngsters who attend Seagull Schools.
The bill expands the state's existing Preschool Open Doors program to help prepare 4-year-olds for school. The voluntary program will provide access to school readiness services that address children's physical, cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development, the governor's office said, with priority given to underserved or at-risk children. It also covers a gap for children who are no longer eligible for public kindergarten the year they turn 5 because their birthdate falls after the eligibility date.
"The bill also requires each provider to conduct school readiness assessments, give priority to children from low- to moderate-income families, and prepare children for school through either English or Hawaiian language," the governor's office said in a news release.
"In my 2013 State of the State, I described any failure to address early learning development as one of our state's greatest unfunded liabilities," Abercrombie said. "I firmly believe that giving keiki a strong early childhood education foundation is the best, most effective way to empower their success in life."
Data released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that nearly half of Hawaii's children didn't attend preschool from 2009-11. But the 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds not attending preschool was an improvement from the 52 percent who didn't attend preschool from 2005-07, according to the 2013 Kids Count data.
"High quality early care and educational experiences are critical for children to be ready to succeed in school and in life, and, according to the research, these experiences are especially important for children who are at highest risk of poor outcomes," said Grace Fong, interim director of the University of Hawaii's Center on the Family.
Abercrombie also announced the appointment of a new early learning director for the measure's implementation phase. GG Weisenfed will take over for Terry Lock, who was appointed director when the executive officer on early learning was established.