Bills to overhaul Hawaii's early-learning system and charter school network easily gained passage at the Legislature on Thursday, with state lawmakers saying the proposed education improvements are long overdue.
The measures now go before the governor, who is expected to sign them into law.
One bill eliminates junior kindergarten at the end of the 2013-14 school year but creates an executive office on early learning that will oversee the state's system and create a publicly funded early-learning program.
Starting with the 2014-15 school year, students will have to be at least 5 years old on July 31 to attend kindergarten.
The charter school bill, meanwhile, is the culmination of months of work aimed at addressing governance, funding and other issues.
The measure calls for putting charter schools on performance contracts and strengthening monitoring of the system. A new Public Charter School Commission, whose nine members will be appointed by the Board of Education, would authorize and oversee the schools.
State Sen. Jill Tokuda, Senate Education Committee chairwoman, rose to her feet on the Senate floor Thursday to applaud the work of dozens of stakeholders who participated in discussions for the charter school network overhaul.
"We know the real work lies ahead in implementing and the transition to this new system," she said. "It will not be easy, and I know there is much anticipation and fear."
Lynn Finnegan, executive director of the Hawaii Public Charter Schools Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, said there is anxiety about implementation of the bill.
But she added there is an opportunity to "really make this positive for the public charter schools."
"We'll be focusing on doing just that … helping to preserve that innovation space while making sure the system is set up for fair and effective governance," Finnegan said.
The push to overhaul the state's charter school system followed reports of possible favoritism in the hiring of relatives at a few charter schools, questions about use of public money and the academic performance of students at some campuses. In December the state auditor issued a critical report on the system, concluding that in many cases charter schools are "free to spend public funds with little or no oversight."
The early-learning bill came out of a broad effort to beef up the state system.
Hawaii is one of 11 states with no state-funded preschool program, and many children enter kindergarten lacking basic skills and preschool experience.
Two years ago legislators approved the elimination of junior kindergarten in 2013, amending state law so that kindergartners must be at least 5 years old on the first day of a new school year.
The new measure would delay the elimination of junior kindergarten by one year, giving the state more time — and a strong mandate — to create a statewide early-learning system.
"This really symbolizes the first real step we've made as a state toward publicly funded early learning," Tokuda said. "We've talked about it for a number of years."
She stressed that the bill will ensure that students who would have been served by junior kindergarten will have other options.