Funding for seven public pre-K classes were cut to help cover the state’s approximately $2.3 billion budget shortfall due to COVID-19.
Program leaders asked the governor to restore the money. However, as schools approach a reopening date, teachers and parents still have no answer on whether Gov. David Ige will grant the request.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Maui parent Jessica Oyanagi. She planned to enroll her daughter in one of the preschool classes at Kula Elementary, but then she learned they lost their funding.
“It was really heartbreaking. She was really looking forward to going to school with her older sibling,” she said.
“And for us, of course, there's a pandemic. Oh, my gosh, our finances are in worse shape than they were beforehand.”
Oyanagi was a photographer but closed her business during the pandemic. Over the past couple of months, she worked on a real estate license and wanted to return to a job. But she can’t without child care for her four-year-old.
“I don't have a backup plan,” she said.
“If it doesn't work out, then I'll roll the punches and stay home with her or hopefully figure something out, but I just don't know if we can afford it.”
The public preschool program planned to serve about 1,080 students this year. However, the loss of the classrooms will leave 140 families without a place to send their children in the fall.
The Executive Office of Early Learning, which operates the preschool program, is asking that the money be restored.
EOEL Director Lauren Moriguchi said parents like Oyanagi can qualify to enroll their children if they cannot afford regular child care and have a financial need.
“We prioritize children from at-risk and underserved families who otherwise may not have an opportunity to access a high-quality, early learning program,” she said. “We prioritize families who have some of the highest need.”
“We prioritize families who have some of the highest need.”
A study by the National Institute for Early Education Research showed that the shutdown of preschools due to the COVID-19 pandemic likely worsened educational inequalities. The study showed that children with parents with lower education levels already had less preschool participation than their higher educated counterparts. Those trends stuck when it came to remote learning as well. NIEER noted that home learning environments are, “more unequal than preschools, and public preschool programs provide their greatest benefits to the most disadvantaged children.”
The budget cuts will impact the jobs of seven educational assistants who work in the classrooms with the preschool teachers.
The aides allow one adult to help the young students with tasks like toilet breaks while the other monitors the rest of the class. It’s a requirement of the public preschool program to have two adults in the classroom.
Deneva Broughton-Neiswanger is just one of the teachers at Honokaa Elementary on Hawaii Island who will be affected by the budget cuts.
“I'll be really devastated both for myself and for my community,” she said.
“Quality preschool programs are extremely important for both the students and the health of the community. . . .The kids are able to learn how to learn, they work a lot with social emotional [development]. We don't have a box curriculum. So I'm able to tailor every learning activity to reach the needs of each student in my classroom.”
If the preschool class funding isn’t restored she will be teaching a higher grade-level, but that hasn’t yet been decided.
The state Legislature passed a bill earlier this month establishing universal child care for all 3- to 4-year-olds by the year 2030.
The measure is awaiting approval by the governor.
The child advocacy non-profit, Hawaii Children’s Action Network’s Director of Public Policy and Research Kathleen Algire thought the loss of the classes would be detrimental to children, families and educators.
“Especially after this session where there was such a focus on access to early learning . . . that we’re cutting seven preschool classes. I think it’s a huge disservice,” Algire said.
This comes on the heels of Hi-CAN's recent findings where about 60% of 700 Hawaii parents surveyed said their employer would not offer flexible hours to meet their children’s school and child care schedule.
Moriguchi explained that this issue returns to EOEL’s persistent workforce challenges that the office has been trying to address over the years. Because the seven educational assistant positions were not permanent hires, they were viewed as vacant. That’s why the state legislature decided to cut the positions to cover the anticipated budget shortfall.
However, the legislature decided to restore the positions, but did not restore the $250,000 to support the seven positions.
“We can only wait for [the Office of] Budget and Finance as well as the governor to release the funding for the positions,” Moriguchi said.
“We cannot sustain the classrooms without funding and whatever funds we have left are needed to address COVID-19 including health and safety needs.”
The governor’s office said in a statement that while Ige values preschool education, the funding for the classes is still being evaluated -- and the state’s budget restraints are a consideration.