Friday, August 8, 2008

Taking the First Step for Keiki

By Representative Roy Takumi
(District 36 - Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades, Manana)

The research is compelling: children who attend preschool or other early education programs have better cognitive, verbal, and social development and enter kindergarten better prepared. They also are less likely to exhibit later delinquency and antisocial behavior, tend to demonstrate higher levels of school achievement and better social adjustment, and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Principal Vivian Hee (in red) discusses Jefferson Elementary School's Pre-Kindergarten program with Rep. Tom Brower and Rep. Roy Takumi.

This is why the governor’s veto of the bill was puzzling at best. After all, the bill introduced this session was the result of the Act 259 Task Force that met over the past two years to develop a proposal for a universal preschool system. The 22-member task force included active participation by the Department of Human Services, Department of Health, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, and staff from the governor’s office. Why would the governor support the task force (since she released the funding for it) and then two years later veto the bill that resulted from its work? In her veto message, she proposed establishing another commission by executive order, an idea that never came up during the task force meetings or during the session in testimony by her executive departments.

The governor raised a number of dubious concerns in her veto message. First, she objected to the creation of the Early Learning Council (ELC) since it "would have a programmatic impact on early childhood programs outside of the framework of existing State agencies." Actually, this is the whole intent of the bill. The current "system" is not a system at all but a hodgepodge of agencies, programs and providers. The ELC is critical to establish a cohesive, comprehensive, and sustainable system.

Second, she raised concerns that the ELC would have too much authority since it would be able to hire staff, establish policies and procedures, and develop standards. This is really no different than other commissions such as the Land Use Commission or the Public Utilities Commission. Indeed, the Charter School Review Panel (which the governor supports) has as much if not more authority than the ELC.

Third, she raised concerns that the ELC could adversely impact the authority of DHS in its current responsibilities regarding childcare facilities. We worked closely with senior staff from the governor’s policy office, DHS and the Office of the Attorney General to craft language to ensure that this was not the intent and they all agreed to the final version of the bill.

Fourth, concerns were raised about the cost. The governor cited numbers posed by the task force that projected a program cost of up to $170 million. This is a cost model and not a funding model, which are very different. A cost model estimates what it would take to run a universal preschool system. A funding model is what it would cost the state in general funds. A cost model takes into account the many revenue streams that are available: federal, private, fees, etc. Also, we all know that cost projections are just that: projections. Keiki First Steps is premised upon establishing a high quality early learning system for the state and funding the program, as resources become available. One example of this approach is Arkansas, which funded its program for years at a modest level of $2 million a year. As their economy improved and the results showed the effectiveness of their program, they now fund it at $90 million a year.

Lastly, investing in Keiki First Steps is the best investment we can make for our future. Art Rolnick, Executive Vice-President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, studied the Perry Preschool Program that tracked students for over 40 years measuring benefits such as earnings and educational attainment. Rolnick concluded that the average, annual real (adjusted for inflation) rate of return on investment at 4 percent for the student and 12 percent for the public. Participants gained because their earnings later in life were that much more than those who did not go to preschool. The public gained because participants were far less likely to be in prison, on welfare, or unemployed.

If we invested in the stock market for that same time period, the annual rate of return only averaged seven percent. Or put another way, for the cost of one year in prison, we can provide preschool for four children.And more than a return in purely economic terms, Keiki First Steps in an investment in our children who are our future.

What better investment can there be?

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