A Tale of Two Hawaiis

The future does not shine the same for every kid

September, 2016

September and October are big months for parents with children in preschool. That’s when many embark on one of Hawaii’s most nerve-racking academic processes: applying to kindergarten.

I am a graduate of the public school system in New York and the mother of a 4-year old, so this is new territory for me. As I take it all in, I notice two distinct worlds.

On one hand are the high-achieving professional parents, whose water-cooler topics include which juku will best prepare our kids for the admissions interview and what extra-curricular activities will help them stand out. It’s a given that they have already attended great preschools and know how to write their names, have robust vocabularies and understand simple arithmetic.

In stark contrast are the thousands of children whose first school experience will be their first day of kindergarten – at age five or six. Not only will most of them lack the academic foundation that preschoolers have sharpened for two or more years, they probably haven’t developed crucial soft skills, such as socialization with other children and adults, and focusing during circle time.

The two sets of children are growing up beneath the same Island sky, but they may as well live on different planets.
The data are pretty straightforward: Children with no exposure to early education lag 12 to 14 months behind their peers in kindergarten, according the U.S. Department of Education. They will be playing catch-up for the long haul – possibly for life. Studies find that, as adults, preschool enrollees are more likely to be employed and to earn more than those who did not attend.

On average, parents of 4-year-olds in Hawaii pay $9,312 a year for full-time childcare, either preschool or a daycare, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.

That’s $776 a month on top of some of the heftiest rent, food and electricity bills in the nation. It is no coincidence that low-income children are most lacking in early education opportunities.

The affordable education initiatives Hawaii currently offers are simply not enough. In 2013, New York City instituted universal pre-kindergarten for all and today provides free education to some 68,000 four-year-olds. This historic experiment has not been all smooth sailing, but at least Big Apple citizens can say they are taking bold measures to ensure that every child gets a good start in life, regardless of economic background.

It’s also a smart investment. For every $1 spent on early learning, taxpayers get a return on investment of $8.60, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education. About half of that ROI stems from higher salaries these children will earn as adults.

That would be a good investment for Hawaii, too, since it would also help break the cycle of poverty that persists through generations of local families.

Two years have transpired since the defeat of Amendment 4, which would have provided public funding for early education programs in the state. The irony is that both proponents and critics of this initiative agreed that there was a need for expanding such academic opportunities – but they differed on approach.

It is time to revisit this important social topic and take decisive action because all children should have access to a brighter future – not just those whose parents can afford the high price of early childhood education.

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Gina Gelber