Preschool amendment fails our children

While early learning programs are vital to our childrens' futures, the current proposal (Ballot Questions 4) to allow public dollars to fund private preschool operations is not the way we ought to go about creating those programs.

Kris Coffield

Learning Matters.

From preschool to post-graduate studies, the quality of a student’s education largely determines future success. To realize the potential of all of Hawai’i's keiki, voters should spurn preschool vouchers for private early childhood education programs.

In 2013, under pressure from Gov. Neil Abercrombie, lawmakers called for a vote on amending the State Constitution to permit up to $125 million in annual public funding for private early learning programs (appearing on this year’s ballot as Question 4). While forcing teachers to work for two years without a negotiated contract, Abercrombie made establishing a public-private early learning partnership a cornerstone of his “New Day” agenda, arguing that preschool attendance strongly correlates with academic achievement.

A cursory reading of early childhood education statistics would seem to support Abercrombie’s claim. Nearly 90 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the age of five. For every dollar invested in early learning, the islands earn $4.20 in socioeconomic gain.

Yet, the governor’s preschool positivism masks an uncomfortable reality. For our society to reap any benefit from early learning, the programs used to instruct four-year-olds must be “high quality,” one of the education-industrial complex’s favorite buzzwords.

Amendment supporters contend that preschool programs contracted through the proposed partnership will align with national standards and, in many cases, employ professional educators. During hearings on legislation to implement the amendment, however, proponents repeatedly opposed requiring certified teachers to provide instruction at contracted schools, despite evidence that some early learning centers hire minimally-credentialed staff members through Craigslist.

Moreover, the national standards to which preschool partners are supposed to comport their curricula are the Common Core State Standards (CCSS, a controversial set of learning goals. According to education policy specialist Diane Ravitch, CCSS relies on developmentally inappropriate standards for kindergarten through second grade (the grades into which preschoolers will immediately matriculate), for-profit education consultants, and an overemphasis on biased standardized tests.

Corey Rosenlee, a teacher at Campbell High School and candidate for HSTA President, recently told the Board of Education that Common Core problems are prevalent in Hawai’i, which adopted the standards in 2012. Rosenlee called the standards “just another test” that has “narrowed the curriculum” to “a heavy dose of math and reading at the expense of everything else,” particularly for students whose families can’t afford extracurricular education experiences or private school.

If preschool voucher advocates’ aim is to ensure early learning excellence for all of our state’s four-year-olds, then they shouldn’t wage war against highly qualified instructors and tie preschool lessons to corporate education reforms.

In addition to curricular concerns, the amendment also raises questions about the separation of church and state. Privatization supporters admit that faith-based preschools will be invited to participate in the state’s early learning initiative, including those affiliated with churches that teach creationism and preach discrimination toward women and LGBT citizens.

While supporters maintain that the state will monitor contracted programs to prevent religious indoctrination, the Department of Education’s track record on dealing with churches is cause for pause. Last year, attorney James Bickerton filed a lawsuit alleging that five churches, including New Hope Christian Fellowship, shortchanged the DOE on $5.6 million worth of rental and facilities fees. Documents later revealed that New Hope leaders had attempted to collude with Board of Education Chair Don Horner, a New Hope pastor, on a regulatory change to limit further payments.

Voters can’t trust department officials to manage the instructional choices made by hundreds of so-called “teachers” at dozens of preschools, when those administrators can’t even account for rental payments.

To be clear, early childhood education is important. Policymakers don’t need to privatize childhood, however, to craft an effective early learning system. Instead, elected leaders could seek a narrower amendment that allows the state to rent private preschool facilities for use by publicly licensed early learning instructors or, preferably, reinstate and expand junior kindergarten.

Ultimately, we should pursue a strategy that keeps both tax money and education programming in the public sphere. In turn, we must reject a scheme that reflects an indefensible hostility to public school teachers and denies healthy learning experiences to thousands of students.

It’s what our children deserve. It’s what their future demands.

Kris Coffield is legislative director of IMUAlliance and chair of Learning Matters Hawai’i.