Hawaii latest state to aim for universal pre-K

The plan, announced by the lieutenant governor, seeks to have 465 classrooms available for underserved children by 2032.
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke speaks at a news conference in Honolulu on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, about plans to expand the availability of preschool in the islands. Hawaii put forward to make preschool available to all 3-to-4 year-olds by 2032. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

Hawaii is poised to join states including Colorado, Florida and Vermont in offering universal pre-K, with a plan to have 465 classrooms available by 2032.

Under the Ready Keiki plan, the state would partner with private groups to bring online 80 more classrooms over the next year-and-a-half and continue to expand over the next decade.

A top priority of Hawaii’s new Gov. Josh Green (D), Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke (D) announced the plan Tuesday alongside legislators and other supporters.

“What we’re hoping to do is aggressively build in the first two years,” Luke said at a news conference. “Then hoping to build 50 [classrooms] a year for several years to reach the mandate of access for all.”

The program would be available to all 3- and 4-year-olds. The state estimates there are currently more than 9,000 preschool age children who are not receiving services.

Last year, the Hawaii legislature appropriated $200 million to build and renovate preschools.

Luke said the state will also partner with the University of Hawaii to establish preschool classrooms on each of its 10 campuses to create a “teaching pathway” for the next generation of early education teachers.

“It’s not just that we need to build preschools,” Luke said. “It’s just as important that we build out the workforce.”

Expanding access to preschool is an issue that increasingly transcends party lines, with both blue states and red states embracing early learning.

This week, Colorado opened enrollment for its new universal preschool program which provides up to 15 hours a week of free schooling to 4-year-olds. Some 3-year-olds are also eligible.

Alabama has set a goal of enrolling 70% of 4-year-olds in preschool by 2026.

Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter (R) recently told Pluribus News that he would like to expand the program to include 3-year-olds.

“We’ve got the best pre-K program in the nation,” Ledbetter said. “And we’re really looking … to try to broaden our pre-K program all the way up to pre-K 3, and I’m really excited about some of those opportunities and seeing what we’ll be able to do.”

More than 40 states, Washington, D.C., and Guam fund preschool programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

But the NIEER’s 2021 State of Preschool report found the COVID pandemic “wiped out a decade of progress increasing enrollment in state-funded preschool programs” with a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students.

Stephanie Akin contributed to this story