What was supposed to be a routine revote on Hawaii‘s graduation policy Tuesday turned into a showdown between school board members and the Department of Education.

A seemingly simple language change — from the word “and” to the word “or” — stretched into a lengthy and emotional discussion among board members and department officials. It lasted into the evening and, at times, seemed as if Hawaii’s new graduation policy had imploded — despite the fact that two weeks ago it had become, for all intents and purposes, policy.

In the end, the simple wording change changed nothing. Hawaii high schoolers will still have to take a third math course: Algebra 2 or a proficiency-based equivalent.

The department’s graduation policy has been rocked with controversy for weeks, primarily because it reduced the number of social studies credits. A later fix muddied things even more because it eliminated a specific requirement for U.S. history and world history.

Then some people raised concerns that the Board of Education may have violated the Sunshine Law with an agenda item proposing new high school graduation requirements that hadn’t been properly noticed.

Confident after a meeting with the Attorney General’s deputy that they had “properly sunshined,” board members unanimously approved the new requirements on Sept. 20.

But questions and concerns about the possible Sunshine violation lingered. So, erring on the side of caution, the board decided to revote on the graduation policy at its regular meeting Tuesday.

And that’s when the entire thing almost fell apart.

First, some board members tried to reinstate U.S. history and world history as required courses. They’ve long been listed as requirements in the department’s course handbook but never in the board’s policy.

“In every other way we have made it a requirement and it’s part of our Race to the Top requirement — the content of U.S. history and world history is in all ways a requirement,” said board member Nancy Budd. “I’m having a real hard time with the fact that we think it’s somehow transformational to not be clear about content.”

The board debated that idea but eventually rejected it 4-3. But not before board member Jim Williams put in a plug for prudence, urging the board to do what makes sense.

“I believe that the policy is in place for students to take U.S. and world history, and I’m comfortable with that, I’m prepared to vote for it again today, but it’s also hard for me to vote against this amendment,” said Williams.

But it wasn’t over yet. The same graduation requirements that had passed two weeks ago seemed to be on the verge of finally being adopted — again.

And then … a change in the math requirements caught everyone by surprise. Jim Williams insisted on replacing “and” with “or” in the Algebra 2 (or Common Core equivalent) requirements.

Now, Williams said, he felt the use of the word “and” was “just another sneaky way of putting in Algebra 2 as a requirement, which I have always been against.” He vowed to vote against the proposed policy, unless the board replaced “and” with “or,” allowing flexibility.

That caused much angst for department officials who have been scrambling to pass a new graduation policy. They need that in order to make good on Race to the Top promises and qualify for a possible waiver from No Child Left Behind mandates.

Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi‘s voice shook as she explained that the word “and” would allow the department to require a nationally and globally aligned equivalent course when it is eventually developed, putting Hawaii on the same page as other states when it comes to educational standards. Algebra 2, she explained, was essentially just a placeholder for courses that are yet to be developed.

“It’s confusing, but we’re focused on standards rather than a course name,” she said. “We’re focusing on what is being taught rather than what we’re calling the class.”

It took board members conferring on the side with department leaders, and even changing their position multiple times. But more than an hour later, consensus was reached. “Or” would prevail 5-2.

And the new graduation policy, as amended, finally passed. Unanimously. Again.

DISCUSSION: *Share your thoughts on this crucial conjunction in Hawaii’s graduation policy: “and” or “or”?

About the Author