Hawaii finds popular support for $15-million after-school care program

December 30, 1990|By Susan Sullam

HONOLULU, HAWAII — Honolulu, Hawaii--With the majority of American mothers working outside the home, fewer children find Mom at home after school waiting with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. Instead, many have become "latchkey" children coming home to empty houses.

Hawaii -- which has the highest percentage in the nation o mothers in the work force -- is the first state to see the need for affordable, quality after-school care as a "hot" political issue that has to be addressed.

While states across the nation are busy trying to maintain essential services during an era of financial belt-tightening, Hawaii has begun an ambitious statewide after-school care program that reaches youngsters in kindergarten through sixth grade whose parents either work or are in school.

Known as A+, Hawaii's after-school program is currently servin 22,500 students at a cost of $15.6 million to the state. The A+ program charges parents only $25 a month per child, regardless income. For children receiving free or reduced-price school lunches under federal poverty guidelines, the program is free.

Hawaii is in a unique position to institute such a massive socia program. Unlike other states that have local school jurisdictions, Hawaii -- the second oldest public school system in the nation -- has a statewide school system that is financed with state funds instead of with local taxes.

"Hawaii's statewide system has a lot of advantages," says Gae Mustapha, communications director for the Department of Education. "Our statewide system makes it possible for us to avoid the poor-vs.-wealthy school district disputes that occur in other states."

Hawaii's unique school system, coupled with the top politica leaders' desire to curry favor with working parents, made it possible for Hawaii to implement a massive undertaking such as and put it into place in less than a year.

In January 1989, Gov. John Waihee appointed Lt. Gov. Be Cayetano to head the Sub-Cabinet on Child Care/Early Education. With an eye on the 1990 elections, Mr. Cayetano's task force came out with its initial A+ proposal in the summer of 1989.

By February 1990 -- less than a year after the task force made it recommendations -- A+ was a reality. During its first semester, A+ was open only to children with both parents working or children with a single working parent. During the 1990-91 school year, A+ was extended to children who have parents enrolled in educational or job training programs.

It's no surprise that an affordable after-school program is winner with the voters. Hawaii has an unemployment rate of only 2.5 percent, one of the lowest in the nation. In addition, more than 66 percent of Hawaii's mothers are in the work force. A November 1988 survey commissioned by Governor Waihee's Office of Children and Youth found approximately 5,000 children were enrolled in organized after-school programs, with more than 30,000 children going home to an empty house every day.

Mr. Cayetano says A+ was a result of a crisis situation in findin affordable, quality child care. "By 1989 and 1990 demand was so great that all resistance just fell away," he says.

Mr. Cayetano also admits that the financial hard times that hav rocked other states have not affected Hawaii.

"In the past several years, Hawaii has enjoyed large budge surpluses. We had the money to do A+ because of the great amount of foreign investment and the boom in tourism," Mr. Cayetano says. Hawaii has a 4 percent excise tax on all goods and services, which generates a lot of revenue from tourists who traditionally use few of the state's services.

Another plus in getting the program under way so quickly wa the close personal relationship between Mr. Cayetano and Hawaii school Superintendent Charles Toguchi.

"Charlie is a close friend and was a key player in pulling A together," says Mr. Cayetano. "We got a lot done because we work well together and we worked to move this through."

But not everyone is happy that Hawaii -- which in 1989 had combined verbal and math SAT score of 888, below the national average of 903 -- has funneled about $15.6 million in state revenues into A+, a program some consider little more than baby-sitting.

Bert Kobayashi Jr., chairman of the Senate Educatio Committee, says A+ is a good program, but in a state with a 15 percent high school dropout rate he objects that "its value to students is less educational than as a social service."

For many parents, however, the educational-vs.-social-servic debate over A+ is of little concern. To them, A+ offers a reliable, safe after-school program that they can afford.

For Ed and Ran Ying Porter, both administrators at the Universit Hawaii, the A+ program saves $200 a month in after-school expenses. The Porters have triplets in the third grade and had been paying close to $300 a month for a private after-school program.

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