"It is a priority. The time is now," said Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
The governor called it his highest priority. But, last year, his $30 million plan to fund an early learning program fell far short. Hawaii lawmakers found only $6 million to fund 900 out of 3,500 preschool-ready kids.
"You can see the different for kids that have had that opportunity and you really yearn for the kids that haven't had that opportunity," said Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi.
At a press conference on Thursday, the governor announced his plan this legislative session -- a $4.5 million slice from his supplemental budget to pay for a scaled-down pre-kindergarten program. It would use 32 classrooms on 30 state elementary school campuses statewide focusing first on low-income and rural area kids.
Kaiulani Elementary Principal Rodney Moriwake says it will build on the benefits of his two preschool classrooms -- those paid for by federal funding.
"You not only see it, but you hear it from your staff, as far as kids improving socially as well as academically," said Moriwake.
"Putting together a publicly-funded early learning program for Hawaii has not been an easy road, not by any stretch," said Education Committee Chair Sen. Jill Tokuda.
Tokuda says Hawaii is now only one of 10 states left in the country that does not have a publicly-funded early education program. She says the governor's proposal last year was just too big for lawmakers to handle. This year, with the benefit of a budget surplus, she plans to pursue more funding to help other families and their kids get an earlier start in education.
"Now it's about taking those next steps to make sure we do more," said Tokuda.
There is another hurdle -- voters would need to approve a chance to the state constitution allowing the state to partner with private educational providers. Some opponents believe the state should focus on improving K-12 programs first.