Deputy AG's letter says governor’s early childhood learning program won’t spur school vouchers

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Apr 21 2013 11:34:00 PM HST

There's a new battle brewing over the millions of taxpayer dollars the governor wants to funnel to private preschools.Teachers and some lawmakers say that's a dangerous precedent.

HONOLULU -

Gov. Neil Abercrombie wants to funnel millions of dollars to private preschools as part of his early childhood learning initiative, which aims to better prepare kids for kindergarten.

In February, the state Attorney General's Office wrote a letter to the governor, informing Abercrombie that an amendment to Hawaii's Constitution was needed before public funds could go to support private businesses.

Lawmakers quickly drafted a bill calling for the constitutional amendment, Senate Bill 1084, which was approved by House and Senate conferees on Thursday.    

"If you read the constitutional amendment bill that we have, it is very narrowly worded to only apply to early education," Rep. Roy Takumi, who chairs the Education Committee, told KITV4.

In a follow-up letter dated April 12, the AG's office issued another opinion to the governor, stating that Abercrombie's early learning bill (SB 1095) would not create precedence for a K through 12 voucher program.  The letter was authored by Deputy Attorney General Gary Suganuma, and approved by state Attorney General David Louie.

"S.B. No. 1095 is limited to pre-kindergarten children and does not create any legal grounds for K-12 vouchers, nor does it even propose the use of vouchers for its early childhood education programs," Suganuma wrote. 

However, some House Republicans believe if the governor pushes through his program and the constitutional amendment is approved by voters in 2014, the voucher issue will eventually be settled in court.

"People on the left don't like it because it looks like a voucher and people on the right, folks like me, don't like it because we believe it discriminates against religious schools," said Rep. Bob McDermott, who serves as minority whip.

"It's going to be the teachers versus the governor, and the governor versus the teachers again," predicted Rep. Gene Ward, minority leader emeritus. "They swear that this is a voucher program, he swears it's not."

Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said in an interview with KITV4 that he opposes the governor's early childhood plan because of the commingling of taxpayer funds with education, even if it as at the preschool level.

"When you use public funds to give to private entities, it is a voucher program," said Okabe. "If it was so cut and dry, you wouldn't need a constitutional amendment."

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