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Hawaii Program for After-School Care Irks Private Firms

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For 15,000 potential "latchkey" children, Hawaii's "A-Plus" after-school enrichment program is building what administrators there call "a sense of Ohana"--a Hawaiian word for a feeling of belonging.

But for some private child-care providers, the unique state-funded effort--which charges working parents no more than a dollar a day to enroll children in a broad range of activities and classes--has brought a sense of dislocation.

The program has been praised by educators in and outside the state as a "forward-minded" move to offer a safe and constructive haven for large numbers of children who would otherwise return from school to unsupervised homes.

But by subsidizing services at such low rates Hawaii has set up what some private providers say is an "unfair competition" draining their business. Besides their own financial losses, they argue, the net result may be to overburden taxpayers, limit the availability of such services as before-school and summer care, and undercut parents' options.

Private providers also maintain the effort was launched too hastily and with too little attention to existing programs.

'Off the Streets'

Backers of the program counter that such concerns are outweighed by the benefits to children. "The nice part of the program is that it got our kids off of the streets and into a more productive setting," said Judith Saranchock, principal of Honolulu's Ala Wai Elementary School.

Officials in the growing number of schools and districts nationwide that are adding child care to their traditional functions also have voiced support for the Hawaii program.

"They've addressed a major problem in our society: Who is going to be the advocate for those children running through alleys and subject to child abuse and all the other problems that go along with latchkey kids," said Robert Henley, superintendent of the Independence, Mo., schools. "Other issues are minor compared to the great benefits that accrue to society and to individual children who've been left alone too long."

While some states, such as Indiana, are considering legislation requiring school districts to address the issue, experts say Hawaii's A-Plus initiative is the only statewide effort to finance low-cost school-based programs for latchkey children.

To help appease providers and relieve schools of some of the burden of program administration, state officials are considering giving schools the option to contract with private providers to operate A-Plus next year.

"When we first heard about it, we were very excited," said Janet E. Lee, director of Hawaii Child Centers, a private nonprofit program offering before- and after-school and holiday care at six centers.

"We knew there were large numbers of children who weren't being served," Ms. Lee said. "But we had no idea the state intended to establish such a massive program so quickly" and with so little collaboration.

"They have been trying to accommodate us, but they should have started a lot sooner," she added.

Emphasis on 'Enrichment'

Because of its high cost of living and relatively low wage levels, Hawaii has a larger percentage of dual-employed couples than most other states. Citing those statistics--and bouyed by the state's sizable budget surplus--Gov. John Waihee 3rd in January 1989 named a subcabinet headed by Lieut. Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano to explore a statewide latchkey program.

The resulting program was announced in July and launched last month.

The way for a statewide program was eased, Mr. Cayetano observed, by the budget surplus and a 1972 law authorizing the education department to implement child-care programs. Moreover, he said, the fact that Hawaii has only a single, statewide school district meant that there was a "lack of competing jurisdictions."

A-Plus, which currently serves more than 15,000 K-6 pupils at all but two of the state's 172 elementary schools, runs from about 2:00 P.M. to 5:30 P.M. each day. It offers activities ranging from homework tutorials to character education, physical fitness, and dramatic productions.

The program, which officials characterize as "enrichment" rather than day care, also includes offerings in such areas as language arts, science, environmental education, and computers.

While not meant to be an extension of the school day, A-Plus seeks "to enhance and supplement and support what is happening in our regular school program," said Herman M.Aizawa, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the state.

About 90 percent of A-Plus site coordinators are principals or teachers, and 50 to 60 percent of its group leaders and aides are certified teachers. Other staff members include parents, local college and high-school students, and community residents.

With a budget allocation of $5.6 million for the current school year, the program is available free to students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced-price lunches, and for $23 a month to all others. A-Plus is open to all public elementary students from families headed by two working parents or a single parent.

The monthly fee is substantially below the average rate of $100 per month charged by private providers.

With its large state subsidy, A-Plus also is able to pay its staff significantly higher wages. Group leaders earn $12 per hour, aides $6, and site coordinators from $14.50 to $17, depending on program size.

The Young Men's Christian Association, the state's largest private provider of before- and after-school care, pays group leaders about $6 an hour and site coordinators between $7 and $8, according to Donald V. Anderson, president of the Honolulu ymca

An estimated 15 percent to 18 percent of the children served by A-Plus were previously enrolled in a private program, according to Mr. Aizawa.

In response to concerns raised by providers, he said, state officials are working out plans to give schools the option to begin contracting with private providers to operate A-Plus next fall, provided their programs meet education-department criteria.

Parents would still pay only $23 per month, but providers would receive the rest of the state subsidy, estimated at about $56 per child.

'Negative Ripple Effect'

Both private providers and school principals say they are open to such contractual arrangements.

But some providers say they have already incurred heavy losses.

The Hawaii Child Centers have lost 35 percent of their children, at a cost of about $5,000 per month, and Ms. Lee predicted that "parents will continue to dribble out."

"The state has set up a program that's competing with programs already in existence," she said, "and the competition is not fair."

Apart from her financial concerns, Ms. Lee added, the program could have a "negative ripple effect" on child-care services statewide.

She warned that providers who offer full-day care for preschoolers and holiday care in addition to part-day programs for school-age children may be forced either to raise their rates, cut back on services, or fold. That is a scenario, she said, that could "eliminate parents' choices."

One parent, for example, maintains he lost services for his children when a local provider went out of business after A-Plus was launched.

"I don't have morning, spring-break, or summer care as a result of A-Plus," said Gary Lee, who is not related to the director of Hawaii Child Centers.

"There's not a lot of fat in the system," Ms. Lee said. Rents do not go down when programs lose children, she noted, and buses cost the same "whether one kid or 20 kids ride."

Because A-Plus charges a flat rate rather than basing fees on income, Ms. Lee added, it could set the stage for "a taxpayer rebellion down the road" as the program expands.

A-Plus allows "families making $50,000 a year to pay the same as those who just barely missed making the cutoff" for free services, she said.

"I'm concerned for myself and my business, but I'm also concerned as a taxpayer," said Nancy D. Moore, director of the Nuuanu Preschool, which has had to raise its preschool rates to compensate for a $2,000-a-month loss in after-school business.

"A-Plus is needed for some families," she said. But for those who could afford higher fees, "the taxpayer is footing the bill."

Besides calling on the state to set fees according to an income-based sliding scale, some private providers are seeking a voucher system that would provide subsidies for poor parents to send their children to private programs.

"We don't want to see a two-tiered system where poor children go to A-Plus and the rest go to private providers," Ms. Lee said. Providers also note that private-school students are currently ineligible for A-Plus.

While paying A-Plus staff above-market rates "dignifies the work," added Mr. Anderson of the ymca, there is "a personal concern that we're not going to be able to compete for good staff."

'Immoral' To Complain

But even though enrollment in the ymca's after-school program has dipped from 1,900 to 700, at a loss of $1 million in revenue, its board of directors firmly supports A-Plus.

"It would be immoral to raise a big fuss," Mr. Anderson said. While the state missed "an opportunity to use the resources of the private provider," he reflected, "families who have been under a tremendous strain all of a sudden can afford child care."

"As a parent, my productivity at work from 2 P.M. to 4 P.M. has to be 100 percent higher" because of A-Plus, said Kathy Cadiente, whose children had been unsupervised after school.

Besides offering "a valuable learning experience," homework assistance, and exposure to new skills, she said, the program means "I don't have to wonder if they made it off the bus."

Children enjoy the program so much that they "get upset with their parents" when they pick them up early, added Jane F. Serikaku, principal of the Iliahi School.

To cut its losses, Mr. Anderson said, the ymca has cut back from 36 to 14 after-school sites and is trying to reduce overhead and adjust its prices.

State officials also are negotiating with the ymca to find ways to fill "gaps not filled by A-Plus," said Lieutenant Governor Cayetano.

When A-Plus was launched, "it was natural that some dislocation would take place," he noted, particularly for "some of the more marginal" child-care operations.

But those who "do well in the private sector," he argued, "recognize a change in the business conditions under which they were operating and a need to offer new programs that will appeal to parents."

The state is also encouraging the expansion of parent-run programs to provide before-school and holiday care, Mr. Cayetano said.

Some schools "would have preferred" to contract with private providers initially, observed Ms. Serikaku, and welcome that possibility.

"If we have private providers who have the experience and expertise, we would be more than willing to work with them," she said.

Mr. Cayetano said he would support allowing schools to contract for A-Plus, as long as the private programs do not charge more and "are consistent with the long-range goals of the education department." While providers say they are well equipped to meet those goals, however, Mr. Cayetano warned that since schools can tap their own staff and pay higher wages, "there aren't many private providers who will be able to do it."

State officials oppose a sliding-fee scale, Mr. Cayetano explained, because they want to promote after-school programs as "an essential ser4vice" that is part of public schooling. Variable rates, he added, would be "an administrative nightmare."

Schools at the Center

In his "school of the 21st century" model, Edward F. Zigler, director of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, has promoted schools as the "center of a child-care system" providing before- and after-school and holiday care in collaboration with other providers.

But competition with the private sector should not impede schools from launching programs, he said.

"Whenever schools get into business they become competitors with the private sector, but I frankly would not let that stop me," he said.

"With all due respect to the private sector, this should not be a turf-guarding issue," he said. "Children should be in the care of adults."

To ensure that the entity best equipped to serve a particular community plays a role, the School-Age Child-Care Project of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women recommends adopting a "pluralistic" mode of delivery that allows funds to flow to many agencies "and not just any one type," said Dale Fink, a research associate at the center.

Mr. Cayetano maintains, however, that reports on the latchkey problem would still be "gathering dust on shelves" if state officials had heeded the "self-interest" of some providers.

"People beat government to death because it moves so slow," Mr. Anderson said. "Those who do should really applaud this program."

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