Lawmakers discuss future of child care, early childhood education

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Administrators of the state’s early childhood education and subsidized child care programs told lawmakers Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to scale back services for the time being.

In addition, lawmakers expressed differing views about whether a new law mandating 100% access to preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds by the end of 2032 can be adequately funded in Hawaii’s post-COVID economy.

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“I think the 500-pound gorilla in the room is the economic situation we’re now in,” said Rep. Roy Takumi, a leeward Oahu Democrat, during a joint informational briefing of the House Education and the Health, Human Services and Homelessness committees.

“If you can believe the newspapers, and you don’t believe it’s fake news, the economic forecast that we’ve seen is that tourism won’t return to 2019 levels until 2025,” Takumi added. “So we’re talking about five years out before tourism, not to mention other sectors of our economy, are kind of going to be at the point we were last year.”

Takumi was referring to Act 46, which also mandates that 50% of previously unserved 3- and 4-year-olds be placed in a state-funded preschool program by Dec. 31, 2027. He asked the administrators if they thought the law’s mandates could be carried out given the current economic crisis.

“We do see the writing on the wall, that implementation of the provisions of Act 46 will be delayed,” said Cathy Betts, the state Department of Human Services director. Noting the law created the state-funded Preschool Open Doors program, she added, “There were 12 full-time positions created under Act 46, but did not receive any appropriations … so we were not able to establish those positions without general funds.”

Adding that $5 million in federal funding has been appropriated for expansion of information technology for preschool programs for 2020-21, Betts said her office is seeking private partners “providing or loaning IT professionals to assist the state modernize IT system.”

“We just need to continue going down the loan of implementation, and we want to be able to implement the will of the Legislature,” Betts said. “But I also recognize that we are in a very dire economic crisis that we have never been in before.”

Rep. Della Au Belatti, a Honolulu Democrat and House majority leader, said Act 46 “set up the special fund so the department will be able to receive, as appropriated from the Legislature, various funds, including federal funds should they come down.”

“Director Betts, it makes it sound as though we’re not currently funding child care programs, preschool programs — but we are, with $20 million,” Belatti said.

“We are absolutely funding child care, as much as we can,” Betts replied. “We are hoping that more federal funding will be able to support child care expansion. However, as I mentioned, Preschool Open Doors is a state-funded program, and I absolutely recognize the economic situation we find ourselves in.”

Belatti said the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden is talking about expansion of the federal Community Block Development Grant program.

“That’s exactly funneling it into these areas where we have expansion,” Belatti said.

Betts pointed out that the CDBG “is a block grant,” so a state match is required “to actually expend the federal funds.”

“We do have that special fund associated with Act 46,” she replied to Belatti. “So if we could have private funders or special funds, that would definitely help us with this cause.”

Lauren Moriguchi, director of the Executive Office of Early Learning, said her office is “focused on maintaining seats” in preschools and “supporting providers wherever we’re able to,” as well as “increasing families’ access” to preschools and child care. She added that she’s seeking more support for the training of early childhood educators from higher education programs.

“While this may not lead immediately to expansion, they do lay the groundwork for us to move forward with expansion when financial investments are greater,” Moriguchi said.

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“I really want to point out, though, that Act 46 is going to take significant investment, both financially and in terms of time over the next decade. In order to make sure that we’re addressing what we need to do, there needs to be significant investment in supporting the workforce, and we also need investment in expansion of programs, as well as facilities.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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