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Cost of preschool in Hawaii now mirrors the cost of in-state college tuition

Updated: 
April 25, 2016 - 1:30am

KAILUA-KONA — For new parents in Hawaii, figuring out how to afford a quality education for their children is no longer a distant concern.

The 18-year buffer zone between birth and high school graduation to beef up bank accounts and amend investment strategies in preparation for educational costs no longer exists, as the demand for serious dough is now more immediate because the rising cost of early childhood education.

According to numbers released last week by the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of full-time child care for a 4-year-old in Hawaii, either in preschool or at a daycare center, is $9,312. The average price of in-state college tuition in Hawaii was $8,216.

The institution’s estimates vary somewhat from those generated by Child Care Aware of America in May of 2015, which tabulated average child care costs in the state at between $7,600-$9,300 yearly and the average annual price tag to attend a four-year, public college at about $9,700.

But the conclusions of both studies are essentially the same: Early childhood education is now effectively as hefty of a financial burden annually as college.

“The biggest expense for any preschool is staffing,” said Executive Director of Hawaii Montessori Schools Angeline Geldhof, who employs 20 staff members between the organization’s two campuses in Kona and Waimea. “We are accredited with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which means we have to set higher standards in terms of staffing our programs, what we provide, our equipment and our facilities.”

Maintaining accreditation, paying leasing fees, buying supplies and maintenance work are just some of the costs that contribute to the high price parents pay for their children to attend private preschools.

Hawaii Montessori, which has not raised tuition in two years, still charges $10,200 for year-round care, including the summer months. There are also application, supply and registration fees totaling $235 as well as insurance costs.

Despite the dents preschool makes in pocketbooks, which can be daunting for some parents, Director of the Executive Office on Early Learning Lauren Moriguchi said dismissing pre-kindergarten education as an unaffordable, inessential luxury is a mistake.

“Research has shown that 85 percent of brain development occurs before the age of 5,” Moriguchi said. “I would say it’s more important for kids to attend preschool than college.”

A position statement of the Southern Early Childhood Association in Little Rock, Arkansas, says that a child will develop 1,000 trillion synapses — connections between brain cells — during the first three years of his or her life. The more positive the environment, the more effective the child’s learning functions will be as the child ages.

“Experiences and interactions shape children’s brains and design the neural architecture that will influence how they will handle all future experiences,” according to the position statement. “If an infant gets too little stimulation, affection, language and human contact, the development of the brain that depends on those experiences will be deterred or will fail to progress.”

In Hawaii, there are tens of thousands of children missing out on proper education during this vital stage of development. And it isn’t simply a problem of affordability, but also one of opportunity. According to Child Care Aware of America, there were as many as 66,000 children under the age of 6 in need of pre-kindergarten care in the state in 2015, but only 37,000 childcare spaces available.

Hawaii does not allow for public funding of private preschools, but various state programs exist to try and bridge the gap.

Moriguchi is working to chip away at the problems of both cost and affordability, heading up the Public Pre-Kindergarten Program. The program services 420 students across the state in 21 different classrooms — including 10 classrooms on the Big Island servicing 200 students — and is targeted at low-income families that earn 250 percent or less of the federal poverty guideline.

Eligibility is determined on a sliding scale based on income level and family size. For instance, a family of three earning $4,831 monthly would qualify for Moriguchi’s program. Other programs with more stringent eligibility requirements ranging from 100-200 percent or less of the federal poverty guideline also exist at the state level, including the Preschool Development Grant, Head Start Programs and the privately funded KALO program.

Lynn Hammonds, executive director of the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board, said that every teacher employed in these public programs must have a college degree, pass a licensure test and submit to a thorough background check.

Geldhof said there are also subsidy programs for families interested exclusively in private preschool education, including Childcare Connections, Preschool Open Doors, the Federal Indigenous Peoples Grant and First to Work. Hawaii Montessori also offers in-house financial aid, which can cut costs by up to 20 percent for those families who qualify.

Of the roughly 130 students educated at Hawaii Montessori, 46 receive some type of assistance, Geldhof said.

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