HONOLULU - Children and educational advocates crowded a Hawaii Senate hearing Wednesday to push for a statewide preschool program, something Gov. Neil Abercrombie has made a central issue for his administration this session.
"This is my highest priority," Abercrombie testified Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Education.
The Senate Committee on Education approved creation of the program.
Senate Majority Leader Sam Slom, the sole Republican in Hawaii's 25-member state Senate, was the only member to vote against it.
"To me, we're not creating anything new," Slom told The Associated Press. "We're transferring funding that's individual parents' responsibility to taxpayers."
Slom said the bill is the result of lobbying efforts from special interests including educational providers who will benefit financially from the program.
Funding isn't the only issue. The bill bumps up against the Hawaii State Constitution, which prohibits public funding of private educational institutions.
The governor wants a state constitutional amendment to allow the state to partner with private educational providers to run the program.
The governor's budget request includes more than $30 million to help pay for the program over the next two years.
Critics of the bill say that the state should focus on improving education for students grades K-12 before starting a new program.
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki says he's worried about the stress on the state budget.
"A cost item like this will only increase over time," he said. He says the cost of the program could increase to more than $150 million per year.
Saiki says there are other alternatives to address the issue that cost less.
"We should start small and build upon it," Saiki said.
Advocates for the bill stressed the importance of preschool to child development and potential societywide impacts.
If passed, the program would replace the pre-kindergarten program that will end in 2014, immediately affecting more than 5,000 kids.
Abercrombie said more than 40 percent of Hawaii kindergarten students last year hadn't attended preschool.
He said the initiative is an investment in Hawaii's future economy and social well-being.