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Bringing Early Education to More of Hawai‘i’s Keiki

Father and mother smiling while holding their child who is smiling at the camera

As much as 85 percent of our brain development occurs from birth to age five, making early childhood learning one of the best investments we can make in our keiki’s health and our community’s future.

This fall, more of Hawai‘i’s hard-working parents can start their workday knowing that their three- and four-year old children—and their fast-developing brains—are learning, growing, and thriving in a safe, enriching environment that’s setting them up for future success. That’s due to an expansion of Preschool Open Doors (POD), a preschool access program that’s expected to allow 2,000 more children to qualify for subsidies, providing an early educational boost that will have a lasting impact on Hawai‘i’s collective economic and social well-being, especially for families who are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, and Employed (ALICE).

“Child care is not cheap,” says Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network, a local nonprofit advocating for all of Hawai‘i’s children to be healthy, safe, and ready to learn. She points to ALICE research that shows Hawai‘i’s high cost of living prevents nearly half of the families in our state from meeting their basic needs. The second largest expense squeezing those families, after housing, is child care, which consumes about 20 percent of the average family income in Hawai‘i, according to various studies that peg the average amount paid for child care in our state between $270 and $400 per week. That cost burden leaves working families without many options, especially if they have more than one child in preschool.

“Investing in early learning has two major effects simultaneously: it provides economic relief for working families, but it’s also great for children to be in a positive, nurturing, learning environment. With this expansion, more families can afford child care and feel solid about where their kids are,” says Zysman.

“Expanding access to preschools extends beyond preparing our keiki for their futures—it's also about enabling our working families to work while their children are in a safe learning environment,” says Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke, who leads the Ready Keiki initiative, the state’s multi-faceted plan to increase access to preschool for all of Hawai‘i three- and four-year-olds by 2032. “The Preschool Open Doors and Ready Keiki initiative are integral parts of our collective effort to support our ALICE families.”

Currently serving more than 740 four-year-olds, the $38 million POD expansion spearheaded by Luke extends eligibility to three-year-olds and increases the family income limit for subsidies to 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline for the 2024-2025 school year. Families are eligible for full or partial monthly preschool tuition subsidies, based on income and family size; for families that qualify for partial subsidies, the POD expansion reduces copayments to 7 percent of income or less.

“Every child deserves access to a safe, supportive, and enriching learning environment,” says Michelle Kaʻuhane, senior vice president and chief impact officer of the Hawai‘i Community Foundation. “Early learning opportunities like preschool can support the development of academic and social skills, enhance the resilience and well-being of young children who have experienced trauma, and strengthen the relationships between children, families, and educators. This increased access is a win for our community.”

Families can learn more and apply online by March 28, 2024, at childcaresubsidyapplication.dhs.hawaii.gov.

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