For the past two years, Hawaiʻi has been focused on establishing a statewide early learning system based on readying children for school. As part of the process, there has been a push for a so-called “public-private solution” where public funds will be routed to private programs in order to “ready” the children within the state. This commentary discusses the amendment, advocacy for the amendment, and the related consequences.
We support building a public early learning system in Hawaiʻi. The value of providing access for all children to early childhood programs where they are viewed as capable needs little defense. Children should have early childhood experiences where they are listened to and responded to by thoughtful and reflective teachers that trust them to think and understand—these experiences inspire children to be contributing participants of the local and global communities. This is good for Hawaiʻi and for the country.
When early learning is used as a tool to increase support for generalized policy designed to divert public resources into private hands, we get concerned.
For the past two years, Hawaiʻi has been focused on establishing a statewide early learning system based on readying children for school, something very different than viewing children as capable. Leading the charge, our current governor established the Executive Office for Early Learning (EOEL) through ACT 178 (passed as Senate Bill 2545) and signed into law in June 2012. This office “provides government-wide authority to guide the development of a comprehensive and integrated statewide early childhood development and learning system.”
The mission of this office is “to coordinate efforts to help ensure a solid foundation for Hawaiʻi’s young children, prenatal to age five, by working with partners, families, and communities, and connecting policies, programs, and funding in relation to health, safety, early childhood education, and school readiness and success” (EOEL). During the past legislative session, the state budget included $3,000,000 for prekindergarten programs in the fiscal year 2015 to fund public preschools on the Department of Education elementary school campuses.
We support this and any endeavor to increase early learning programming in Hawaii; however, alongside the efforts described above, there has been a push for a so-called “public-private solution” where public funds will be routed to private programs in order to “ready” the children within the state.
In order for this to happen, Hawaiʻi needs to amend its constitution. Senate Bill 1084 was passed (with two-thirds majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives) in 2013 by the legislature presenting the proposed amendment to Article X, Section 1, of the Hawaiʻi State Constitution to permit the appropriation of public funds for private early childhood education programs to help the State meet its goal of providing an early learning system. This allows for the amendment to appear on the November 2014 ballot and leaves the approval in the hands of the voters.
As a state entity, EOEL cannot advocate or campaign for the passage of this bill. Therefore, advocacy has been passed on to Good Beginnings Alliance. This public/private advocacy partnership was initiated by the state legislature in 1997 and Good Beginnings Alliance has since positioned itself to be the voice of the children in the state—so much so they have a polished campaign titled “Be My Voice.”
This campaign (with funds over $500,000 contributed by local businesses and foundations) holds itself out to be “a collaborative, public-will building campaign, whose mission is to raise support around early childhood education, family strengthening and health services,” (Good Beginnings), but it actually seems designed to scare and manipulate the public into support of the constitutional amendment allowing public money to be routed to private programs.
For example, in one public service announcement, children are running in a race and a voice-over states, “Our children are behind before they start.” In another PSA, a young child is wearing an orange prison suit with her hands and feet shackled, unable to play on the playground, unable to complete her work in the classroom. The voice-over shares, “The state of Hawaiʻi spends nearly $50,000 a year on each prison inmate and almost nothing on our preschoolers. Don’t imprison our children’s future. Ask your legislator to fund preschool for all 4-year-olds. You can change their future at BeMyVoiceHawaii.org.”
Good Beginnings Alliance has taken the lead in lobbying for the constitutional amendment through the Good Beginnings-Childrens Action Network (GBA-CAN) (a 501c4 entity). Using snippets of research and statistics out of context, this group distributes educational materials and information through their website fueling the fear campaign that without a constitutional amendment, Hawaiʻi is doomed.
While an implementation bill and administrative rules must be established with the passing of the amendment, there are still concerns. By contracting with private entities, education becomes a product up for grabs by the highest bidder. Equity becomes impossible as monies drive the public-private partnerships. It comes as no surprise that many franchised and private early childhood programs in the state came out to provide supportive testimony for this bill. And, funding a campaign of fear and manipulation works against honest democratic debate. This amendment and the subsequent legislation support compliance and conformity, leaving equity and democracy in the margin, if anyplace at all.
It is easy to see the formula working in the state: Fear + Manipulation = Ease for Privatization. In this case children are a commodity. While one might argue that privatization has no immediate and direct impact on the everyday experiences of children in schools, we beg to differ. When a child is viewed as capable within the construct of school, the day consists of following the rhythms of the child with long spans of time of children exploring materials; fostering relationships between children and teachers; and assessment initiated by the child. Narrow standards, prescribed assessment and curriculum, and a schedule driven by time and busy work populate the child-as-commodity classroom. Sending education out for bid invites inexpensive and often inappropriate constructs of early childhood education.
For example, in one local early childhood program an in-house professional development system was created for the teachers so the teachers did not need to pursue degrees beyond the Associates level. This ensures teachers will never have to be paid beyond the Associates level—and the bottom line of the program remains low. When children are viewed as a commodity, the bottom line becomes more important, apparently, than the education of the teacher, and more important than the quality of learning experiences provided to the child.
With the passing of the constitutional amendment, the policy context within Hawaiʻi will change and this will impact how we make decisions. Without the amendment, we debate and make decisions based on the assumption that using public money to line private pockets is not appropriate and thus a non-starter. With the amendment we soften that assumption and accept that in some cases (e.g., when educating young children) lining private pockets with public money makes good sense.
Perhaps it does, but adjusting the context in this way seems to tilt the policy playing field away from collective community efforts to improve education for all and toward competitive and individualized efforts to provide a service, if and only if, it allows the possibility of scraping profits off of the backs of children and families. It certainly moves the view of child as capable off the table.
What is particularly troubling is that some of these profits will come while serving children and families who cannot currently afford to obtain early childhood education and are therefore at risk, and truly need the state’s good faith, full support and attention. Instead of dedicating state resources fully to providing solid early learning experiences for disadvantaged children, the state wants to cut deals with private entities.
Donna Brazile (Democratic Political Strategist) cites privatization as the means of increasing segregation in our public schools. She notes, “Whether in New Orleans or Philadelphia or Detroit or New York, legislative schemes perpetuate separate and unequal by privatizing large swaths of public school districts—and in some cases, entire districts” (Brazile, 2014). Should we support something that has proven to further segregation and inequality? Or is it time for us to roll up our sleeves and find a way to make a commitment to early childhood and equity that does not monetize children?
The public must find a way to circumvent the fear and manipulation of those in power. Accepting the fear and allowing for manipulation opens a space for privatization, as it is perceived as the only solution. The way to expand the solutions is to make a commitment to equity by viewing all children as capable, regardless of background, socioeconomic status, and geographical location.
We need to find a new formula; one that does not equal privatization, but sees children as capable and creates an equitable system that supports and furthers this perspective. Interestingly enough, Finland has one of the most equitable school systems in the world, and there are no private schools. Several decades ago, the people of Finland rolled-up their sleeves and reformed their school system by focusing on equity (unlike our own obsession on excellence)—all without privatization. It can be done. Are we up for the challenge?
Act 178, Hawai‘i Stat. • 2545 (2012).
Brazile, B. (2014). “60 years after Brown, integration is falling apart”
Executive Office on Early Learning (2012). EOEL Background.
Good Beginnings (2010). Be My Voice! Hawai‘i.
Senate Bill 1084, 26th Legislature (2012).
Originally published in Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 23, 2014
ID Number: 17734, Date Accessed: 10/28/2014 2:12:47 PM