HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - About half of elementary schools in Hawaii still have sixth grade classrooms.
The governor is proposing to change that as part of a bid to significantly bolster preschool offerings in the islands.
In his State of the State address on Tuesday, Gov. David Ige said he wants to convert existing kindergarten through sixth grade schools to pre-kindergarten through fifth grade campuses.
Sixth grade classes at affected campuses would move to their feeder middle schools.
He said the shift would provide a “tremendous opportunity” to kickstart broader plans to offer universal state-funded preschool in the islands while ensuring the state has “well-qualified preschool teachers to staff these classes.”
“We must create a universal, statewide high-quality public preschool system that will give every child in Hawaii a head start on learning,” he said, in the address.
Ige added that to make universal preschool a reality, the state would need to add about 300 classrooms in Hawaii’s public schools. In his State of the State, he didn’t outline out he’d pay for the plan.
“Clearly, this is a long-term goal,” he said. “But we don’t have to wait until we have funding for all of it. We can start to fill this significant gap in our education system by being smart about how we use existing space.”
The initial plan calls for converting 22 classrooms into pre-kindergarten and about a handful of schools are ready for the change now.
As part of his budget, Ige is also proposing $14.3 million for renovations to schools and more than $2 million for additional teachers and support.
“Our priority is to go into communities where there are no public, or private or charter opportunities right now and start with those schools first,” said DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.
Both HSTA and BOE chair support the Governor’s plan.
“This is something that other countries are doing, other states have done and it’s long due for Hawaii,” said Corey Rosenlee, HSTA President who said hundreds of teachers are already certified to teach preschool.
BOE Chair Catherine Payne calls universal preschool a “moral obligation.”
“There’s plenty of research that tells us if we can fill that gap. Then we can make a difference for these life-long for these children,” she added.
But the governor might find resistance in the Legislature.
“We in the Legislature, particularly in the House are very concerned because we know the repair and maintenance backlog is over $860 million so the Governor has spent quite a bit of money,” said House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti.
Currently, free preschool is only offered at a handful of Hawaii public school campuses.
In 2017, less than 400 Hawaii 4-year-olds attended a state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. That’s about 2 percent of the 17,500 4-year-olds in the state.
With few publicly-funded options, Hawaii parents must largely turn to private programs, seek child care subsidies or put their children with relatives during the day. Less than half of Hawaii’s 3- and 4-year-old children attend preschool.
The price for full-time preschool in the islands averages about $800 a month, according to the University of Hawaii Center on the Family.