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Federal Money Is Running Out For Charter Schools’ Pre-K Programs

September 12, 2018
Suevon Lee
Honolulu Civil Beat

Carolann Larson, the wife of an Army infantry officer based on Oahu and the mother of four young children, immediately noticed the positive impacts of pre-kindergarten schooling on her son, Maxamis.

After attending Kamalani Academy’s pre-K program last school year, he showed a number of positive traits: at home, he wanted to help out more. He was more compassionate toward his younger siblings. He was able to group similar items together.

And when 5-year-old Maxamis started kindergarten this year at Solomon Elementary on Schofield Barracks Army Base, he was one of only two kids in his class who knew to take his folder out and hang his backpack where it needed to go.

“It was an amazing program,” Larson said, of Kamalani’s pre-K. “He benefited so much from it, and I think we did too as a family.”

The charter school’s pre-K program, which has since been discontinued over a building permit issue, was possible under a federal preschool development grant intended for eligible 4-year-olds in Hawaii’s public charter schools. Charter schools are tuition-free and state-funded with Hawaii Department of Education money, but operated by independent governing boards.

A four-year $14.8 million federal grant awarded in 2014 helped establish 18 new pre-K classrooms across 11 public charter schools in Hawaii. The maximum reach is 360 students per year, since classroom size is limited to 20 students.

The grant expires next year, meaning the future of these public charters’ pre-K programs could hinge on whether the Legislature doles out funding next session to help keep them afloat. The Hawaii Public Charter School Commission, the statewide charter school authorizer, plans to ask the Legislature for $4.1 million annually to sustain the existing pre-K classrooms, said executive director Sione Thompson….

“It’s not up to us to allow (these programs) to continue or not,” he said. “We would love the state to fund it. That’s our primary ask.”

The uncertain future of the charter schools’ pre-K programs is playing out against the backdrop of an active effort in Hawaii to boost the state’s early education options and expand free pre-K.

In 2017, just 2 percent of Hawaii’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program, compared with the national average of 33 percent, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Private pre-K programs remain out of reach for many Hawaii families due to the cost — the average annual cost of enrolling a 4-year-old in a private pre-K center in Hawaii is $8,724, according to Child Care Aware of America.