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THE HAWAI’I PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM, AND THE START OF THE CHARTER SCHOOL EXPERIMENT IN HAWAI’I



(c) Copyright 2002, Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved


The State of Hawai’i is the only state in the United States whose public education system is centrally controlled and operated by the state. There are no local school boards. Funding comes entirely from the state income tax or other state revenues, and not from local property taxes. Thus, per-pupil expenditures are, at least theoretically, equal on all the different islands and in all the various towns and neighborhoods. Teachers are hired by the state, paid by the state on a uniform statewide salary schedule, must meet uniform statewide certification requirements, and must theoretically teach a statewide curriculum with statewide performance standards.

This theoretical uniformity and equalization is due to the history of Hawai’i. The native King Kamehameha I conquered all his opponents through bloody warfare (the islands of Hawai’i, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Maui, and O’ahu) and also through intimidation or threat of violence (Kaua’i) and established a unified Kingdom of Hawai’i by 1810. Upon his death in 1819 his son and successor, the youthful Liholiho Kamehameha II, at the urging of his powerful stepmother Ka’ahumanu (who had been Kamehameha I’s favorite wife) overturned the traditional religion and ordered the burning of all the temples and idols. The white missionaries fortuitously arrived in 1820, created a written form of the Hawaiian language (which had previously been entirely oral), and eventually converted most of the chiefs and commoners to Christianity.

Schooling was centralized and tightly controlled. The missionaries were initially all from the same Protestant denomination, and taught the chiefs and the people to read and write under the auspices of the all-powerful monarchy; and they used a unified curriculum consisting of the Christian bible. Hawaiian language bibles and other school materials were all printed on the only printing press in the Hawaiian islands, located at the missionaries’ headquarters in Honolulu. Later, Catholics and Mormons and other denominations came to Hawai’i, but the public schools remained under the control of the central government of the Kingdom and later of the Republic of Hawai’i, the Territory of Hawai’i, and the State of Hawai’i.

In reality, there are great differences among the islands and neighborhoods. For example, the statewide teachers’ union formerly had a statewide seniority system with statewide bumping rights. That meant that inexperienced younger teachers had to take the least desirable jobs, even on islands or in neighborhoods where they didn’t want to live. As teachers and principals acquired greater seniority they could choose more desirable jobs or neighborhoods, leaving bad situations to inexperienced teachers and principals. Thus, certain islands and neighborhoods became dumping grounds for teachers and principals who were inexperienced, who did not live in the area, who did not like or understand the ethnic groups living there, and who switched to more desirable schools as soon as possible. The situation has improved somewhat in recent years as seniority and bumping rights have become more regionalized, but there are still great disparities between islands and neighborhoods.

There are also significant differences between the racial and cultural composition of the school staff and the composition of the student body. The faculty and administration of the public school system are dominated in both numbers and power by people of Japanese ancestry, followed by people of European ancestry. And of course the staff and administrators are well educated, and usually of upper-middle or lower-upper class backgrounds. Children of Hawaiian or Filipino ancestry, or from economically disadvantaged families whose educational backgrounds are poor, can easily feel like they are in a strange place with people who do not understand them.

There is also an important difference between the “standard English” used by the teachers, and the local Pidgin dialects spoken by many of the students. The different linguistic styles can be seen as racial differences as well as class differences, and sometimes cause an “us vs. them” attitude on both sides. Historically there were “English standard” schools attended by students expected to speak good quality standard English and learn a college preparatory curriculum, vs. general schools attended by lower-class “local” Pidgin speakers. There are no longer separate “English standard” schools; but there are great differences among various public high schools concerning the quality of academic performance and social expectations. Thus, people born and raised in Hawai’i meeting each other for the first time often ask “Weah you wen grad?” meaning “Which high school did you graduate from?” and the answer is considered more significant than what college was attended or whether any college at all was attended. Graduates of Kaiser or Moanalua are regarded very differently from graduates of Farrington, Roosevelt, or Kahuku. People of all ethnic groups and educational levels who can speak Pidgin with the proper accent, body language, tone of voice, and spontaneity are regarded as “local” and get special respect and easy access never given to newcomers.

Then there are the private schools. In Hawai’i the percentage of children attending private schools is probably quite a bit higher than in most other states. Partly that’s because the public schools are regarded as poor in quality; thus, parents who can scrape together enough money for private school tuition feel it is an important investment. For many years the public schools have been falling into disrepair. The statewide Department of Accounting and General Services is responsible for budgeting and contracting large construction and small repairs. Each school has a ranked list of DAGS priorities in competition against other schools. Sometimes schools send busloads of students to the legislature to lobby for preferential treatment. According to some estimates the repair backlog runs to about ten years. School supplies are ordered statewide and stored in a central warehouse; thus there are delays and political favoritism in sending supplies out to the schools. Classrooms are crowded. It is commonplace for high school students not to have individual copies of textbooks. Teachers are routinely expected to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, including paper, pencils, crayons, etc. By contrast there are wealthy private schools like Punahou, ‘Iolani, and Kamehameha. And there are less wealthy but still very respectable private schools where gangs, violence, or unruly behavior are not tolerated; where books and supplies are plentiful; and where the per-pupil cost is substantially lower than in the public schools.

In the past few years various states have experimented with public “charter schools.” The idea was to allow local, cohesive groups of people who agree with each other on basic principles to create “alternative” public schools that would be tax supported but could operate more or less independently from the traditional education bureaucracy. Some of these schools were focused on special curricula such as the fine arts or computer technology; but generally the charter schools were distinguished by a “progressive” or “student centered” or “group project” style of teaching/learning. Many charter schools were established by affluent “yuppie” parents, or socially liberal parents, who wanted their children to have freedom from the regimentation of the traditional schools. These parents often felt that HOW children learn is more important than WHAT they learn; that Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” is more appropriate than Plato’s “Republic,” or that Howard Zinn’s approach to American history is better than traditional patriotism.

In Hawai’i, the charter school movement was very slow to get started. Partly that is because the huge statewide public teachers’ union has great political power, and the huge bureaucracy in the Department of Education is well entrenched in government. For more than a decade educational reform meant “School Community Based Management” in which individual schools could petition the statewide Board of Education for the privilege of having a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and students “empowered” to request waivers for minor changes in the school calendar, curriculum, budget, disciplinary rules, etc. But generally speaking the overall curriculum, and the hiring and firing of teachers and administrators, remained under the control of the central bureaucracy and subject to statewide union contracts.

During the year 2001, the State of Hawai’i finally permitted a maximum of 25 charter schools to be established. All 25 slots were filled, and one or two proposed charter schools were not allowed because they were late to file their paperwork and/or they were in excess of the permitted total of 25.

The charter school movement provides a real opportunity to begin decentralizing the Hawai'i public school system. It can make individual schools or clusters of schools more closely accountable and responsive to the neighborhoods or geographic regions they serve. Charter schools can be established to serve special groups of students for special purposes: such as a "magnet school" for math, science, and technology; or a special school for students interested in art, music, and theatre. But all such charter schools must be required to provide a strong general education in the basic skills needed for productive citizens in our democratic society such as reading, writing, mathematics, group cooperation, a knowledge of U.S. and Hawaiian history (balanced, not propagandistic anti-government). Charter schools can have special facilities to encourage the flourishing of the special interests of their students, but must keep in mind that children and teenagers are still exploring, can change their minds, and need a strong basic education to prepare them for whatever choices they may make. Under no circumstances should charter schools be used to facilitate ethnic or racial separatism, or to teach children that people of one racial group are superior to others or are entitled to anti-democratic special rights.


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Email: ken_conklin@yahoo.com