New Law Establishes Public Early Learning Office

While Hawaii is one of just 11 states without a publically funded preschool program, Senate Bill 2545 (SB2545), which I authored and passed out this legislative session, will put Hawaii on the path to join the rest of the country in educating our youngest keiki.

For decades, our private preschool providers have stepped up to the plate and helped to educate and prepare our children for success in school and life. Now it is our turn as a state to “put some skin in the game” to learn from and work collaboratively with our partners in the private sector to make a publically funded early learning system a reality.

State Sen. Jill Tokuda

State Sen. Jill Tokuda
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State Sen. Jill Tokuda

Understanding the need for coordination and cooperation among all relevant governmental departments and agencies, SB2545 establishes the Executive Office on Early Learning (the Office), with its executive director serving as the point person within the administration on all things relating to early childhood education.

In addition, to provide guidance and perspective from the public and private sector on how we can best meet the educational needs of children from prenatal care to entry into kindergarten, the existing Early Learning Council will transition into its new role as the Early Learning Advisory Board, serving as a critical resource and partner for the Office.

Among the most controversial and misunderstood parts of SB2545 was the elimination of Junior Kindergarten beginning in the 2014-15 school year. While this has been a very positive option for many families, particularly late-born children, the program was never uniformly implemented across all schools with developmental and age-appropriate curriculum, assessments and training provided to establish and run the program. In many cases it was simply kindergarten, with the only difference being that some children were almost a year younger than their peers.

If we are going to provide early childhood education, we need to do it right. That means phasing out a program like Junior Kindergarten, that had the best of intentions but never met its mission, and replacing it with a program that will meet the needs of our students. In 2008 Hawaii established Keiki First Steps, which has served as our statewide early learning system, focused on maximizing public and private resources to ensure the delivery of services throughout our communities.

SB2545 represents the very first steps of Keiki First Steps, calling upon the Office to develop an implementation plan and projected financials to ensure a seamless transition to an early learning system, focusing on those targeted 4-year-olds most impacted by the loss of Junior Kindergarten, by the 2014-15 school year.

SB2545 also clarifies a law passed in 2010 by making clear that a child must be at least 5 years old by July 31 in order to enter kindergarten, but pushes back this mandate to the 2014-15 school year to align with the implementation of Keiki First Steps, and focuses on ensuring all children have meaningful options.

What we know as parents and what the research tells us is clear: Access to developmentally and age-appropriate educational opportunities delivered by highly effective professionals armed with the curriculum and assessments they need to educate our keiki makes a difference. As a community that cares about all of our children, and as a society that will reap the benefits of an educated and career-ready work force, Hawaii must become a leader in early learning. While it’s only the first step, SB2545 is an important one in making this a reality.

Contact state Sen. Jill Tokuda, D-24 (KaneoheKailua) at 587-7215.