By Nanea Kalani

The state will help pay for about 1,000 children to attend preschool in 2014 under legislation Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law earlier this week establishing a statewide school readiness program.

Senate Bill 1093 will expand the existing Preschool Open Doors program under the state Department of Human Services with an additional $6 million for subsidies to low-income families and underserved or at-risk keiki.

"It's a start. That's all it is, is a start," Abercrombie said at a news conference at Washington Place. "For the first time, the state will be codifying into law a commitment to preparing young children for success in school and in life.

The bill also requires providers to conduct school-readiness assessments and prepare children for school through either English or Hawaiian language.

Abercrombie's original early-education plan would have served most of the 5,100 so-called late-borns who would have attended junior kindergarten at public schools next year. Beginning with the 2014-2015 school year, students will need to be at least 5 years old by July 31 to enroll in public school kindergarten.

The state's intent was to phase out junior kindergarten -- launched in 2006 for late-born 4-year-olds -- while rolling out a plan for publicly funded universal preschool. Hawaii is one of 11 states without state-funded preschool.

Abercrombie last year established the Executive Office on Early Learning to lead the effort in hopes of having a program in place for the 2014-15 school year.

But lawmakers this session scaled down or deferred the governor's early-education initiatives. They did, however, agree to place a constitutional amendment on the 2014 ballot asking voters whether public money can be spent on private early-education programs.

(c)2013 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser