Editor’s Note: Civil Beat is examining why life in the islands is so expensive in an ongoing series, Living Hawaii. We are looking at what’s behind high prices here and discussing ways to bring them down.

George Vanisi says he struggles to get by as the breadwinner of a seven-person family who earns just $16,000 a year as a mason contractor.

That $16,000, according to the 46-year-old Palolo resident, has to cover all of his family’s expenses, including medical bills related to his wife’s heart problems.

And yet, Vanisi says he was until recently also spending money on private school tuition for two of his children. Those two boys, who are 13 and 14, attend Manoa’s St. Francis School, a medium-sized K-12 Catholic school that costs about $10,000 annually per student.

Vanisi never paid full tuition for his sons. That would be more than his income. The school grants discounts for siblings and offers other forms of financial aid. But even the cost of discounted tuition can be a crushing burden. So Vanisi says he worked out a deal with the school to pay his sons’ tuition through in-kind masonry and other on-site contracting work.

Vanisi says his wife home-schools their other three children — ages seven, nine and 12 — because the couple doesn’t believe public schools instill enough discipline. They plan to teach all of their children themselves until the kids become teenagers.

They are like many parents in Hawaii who go to remarkable lengths to keep their children out of public schools.

Education experts have looked at why families abandon public schools.

“There’s a persistent narrative that has developed around Hawaii public schools … as being inadequate and not high quality,” said University of Hawaii College of Education professor Lois Yamauchi.

Hawaii Leads the Nation

An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 16 percent of Hawaii’s roughly 214,000 school-age children attended private schools during the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which comparable national statistics are available. Hawaii leads all states.

By comparison, the national average was 8 percent, with 12 states, including Colorado, Texas and Wyoming, reporting private school populations of 5 percent or less.

Private school enrollment in the islands ticked down a notch to 15 percent this year (after an influx of 5,000 students into the state’s K-12 population), according to an analysis of data from the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS) and the state Department of Education. So the islands still nearly double the national average.

This contrast between the islands and the rest of the country doesn’t just suggest that Hawaii has an obsession with private schools, it helps to explain why the cost of living for many families is so high.

Sure, unlike housing and electricity, this particular expense is avoidable given that parents can nearly always send their children to one of the state’s 287 regular or chartered public schools.

But many thousands of parents, for whatever reason, dig deep for their children’s education.

The Private School Landscape

Hawaii is home to 111 private K-12 schools statewide, including 33 Catholic schools and three special-purpose schools.

Tuitions vary greatly, from as little as $3,300 a year for commuter students at Kamehameha Schools to $27,600 for Horizons Academy of Maui, a special-education school that is serving just 12 students this year, according to recent data from HAIS.

The average tuition statewide, according to the same data set, is $8,900, while the median is about $7,000. Robert Witt, HAIS’s executive director, says many parents find it surprising that nearly three-fourths of all of Hawaii’s private schools cost less than $10,000 and that about half of them cost less than $7,000. Just 11 private schools in the state cost $16,000 or more.

Private school education in Hawaii is actually significantly less expensive than that in other regions, according to the National Association for Independent Schools:

2013-14 Median kindergarten Median 12th grade
East (NY and NJ) $27,300 $34,400
Middle Atlantic $17,840 $24,893
Midwest $15,730 $20,500
New England $22,460 $35,000
Southeast $13,475 $18,880
Southwest $14,825 $19,390
West $20,150 $29,050
Hawaii $6,800 $10,655

Many of Hawaii’s 11 costliest schools are the institutions that cross people’s minds when they think of private education in Hawaii, while a few are specialty schools serving kids with specific learning needs such as dyslexia. The list of high-end schools includes prestigious, relatively large college-preps such as Punahou, Iolani and Mid-Pacific Institute, all of which trace back to Hawaii’s missionary days. Most of the priciest schools are in the Honolulu area.

In fact, schools in and around urban Honolulu are the main reason Hawaii’s overall numbers are so high: more than one out of every three students in school in Honolulu — nearly 38 percent — attend a private school, according to HAIS data. That’s compared to about 4 percent in Oahu’s Leeward area, for example, or 9 percent on the Big Island.

Hawaii Region Private School Enrollment Average Private School Cost
Honolulu 37.65% $10,598
Maui 14.10% $8,881
Windward 12.57% $7,704
Hawaii (Big Island) 8.6% $7,148
Central 6.71% $7,808
Kauai 6.71% $6,089
Leeward 4.26% $7,093


Sacrificing for Education

Parents often send their children to private schools because of social status, peer pressure, campus safety, higher academic expectations, smaller class size and more individualized attention. Others say that private schools are a “family thing”; DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, for example, in an interview with Honolulu Magazine cited her family’s tradition of attending Iolani in explaining why she sent her two children to the college-prep instead of a public school. Board of Education Chairman Don Horner said it was his late wife’s decision to send their two children to Iolani, too, and pointed to the high caliber of education there.

Parents of children in pricey private schools around the country might offer similar motivations. But on the mainland, they tend to come from parents who are very wealthy or very religious. In Hawaii, people further down the income scale give voice to them.

Darcie Scharfenstein, who manages public relations and communications for a local nonprofit, earns a middle-class living but is planning on sending her 14-year-old son next school year to Iolani or, depending on acceptance, Punahou or Mid-Pacific. The single mother expects to make major lifestyle changes once her son switches schools. He currently attends St. Mark Lutheran School in Kaneohe, which costs about $7,600, compared to $20,100 for Iolani, $20,700 for Punahou and $20,000 for Mid-Pacific.

Scharfenstein said her son’s tuition will become her number-one expense — more than transportation or housing. Instead of going on family vacations, they’ll go camping and stay closer to home, she said. And instead of eating out on weekends, she’ll cook at home and buy much more of their food at Costco. Beyond that, she expects to “downsize” their home, likely moving to a smaller house closer to whichever school he enrolls in.

Even though it’s a tough decision, Scharfenstein, who attended Punahou herself after going to public school during her earlier years, said “it’s the right decision for us, and I’m going to make it work.”

“There’s no debate,” she said, noting that her son “needs the level of care and attention these private schools provide.”

“As a parent you want to give your child every opportunity to succeed.”

The Vanisis have even fewer resources than Scharfenstein, but they see things in a similar light. They are home-schooling their children until high school because of “all the things that happen in public school.”

Asked what he meant, Vanisi pointed to the “bad crowds,” large classes and the lack of individualized attention given to students in public schools.

‘Going Against the Grain’

Ann Bayer, the author of Going Against the Grain: When Professionals in Hawaii Choose Public Schools Instead of Private Schools, laments “conventional wisdom” in Hawaii that “private schools are superior to public schools.”

This myth, she wrote, is perpetuated by word of mouth and the media, and history. Private schools, according to Bayer, gained higher status during the missionary and plantation days when it was common practice to segregate the students of elite, often white, families from the “commoners.”

Bayer, who is a University of Hawaii College of Education professor, found that many parents in modern times decide on private schools before assessing the range of public school options.

“There is the perception, and there is the reality,” Bayer wrote, quoting a professor in her book. “A lot of the really bright kids have left, but there’s this notion that there’s a brain drain, and who is left would be like the lowest levels of kids. That isn’t true, but it certainly has had a negative impact, I think.”

The Cost of Private Schools

It’s nearly impossible to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of achievement because Hawaii’s public schools make their data publicly available and private schools often do not.

Other factors, however, are more easily comparable. Most of Hawaii’s public school facilities are noticeably in need of improvement; Hawaii, which spends $294 per student per year on facilities, ranks last in the country for capital improvement funding. Hawaii’s public schools are on average 65 years old and face a slew of high-profile challenges, including shoddy construction and a lack of air-conditioning in some of the hottest classrooms.

“When you compare a place like (Punahou) and, let’s say, one of the public schools that looks really bad, the private schools almost look like castles,” the professor told Bayer.

But inequality among Hawaii’s public schools isn’t as severe as many may think, according to Yamauchi. Unlike in other states, Hawaii has a single statewide school district and supports its schools with money from the general fund, not property taxes. That funding structure is meant to equalize funding for schools, and while there are still discrepancies it does reduce the kind of inequalities seen in other school districts, Yamauchi said.

She added that she feels more confident sending her kids to public schools knowing that the DOE is accountable to taxpayers and therefore held to strict transparency, performance and teaching standards.

Charter schools aside, the Hawaii Department of Education allocates about $11,700 per student each year. Given private tuition rates, that would suggest that most of the state’s private institutions are, in theory, spending less money on each student than the state’s public schools.

The most expensive private schools each have their reasons for charging more than the DOE’s per-student price tag. Horizons Academy, Variety School of Hawaii and ASSETS — which last year charged $27,600, $20,000 and $19,300, respectively, are the most expensive schools in the state — serve children with special needs and provide services that inherently cost more than regular education. These schools have very small student-to-teacher ratios.

Iolani, on the other hand, cites its pursuit of the highest-quality education possible in explaining why it charged $18,900 per student this year. Tuition, which has more than doubled since 2001, is increasing to $20,100 next year. About one out of every five students receives financial aid that, on average, amounts to $9,000 per student, according to spokeswoman Cathy Lee Chong. Iolani has nearly 1,900 students this year.

The school’s highest-earning employee in 2011 was Headmaster Val Iwashita, who made nearly $316,000, in addition to $62,000 in other compensation, before he retired, according to the school’s most recently available Internal Revenue Service disclosure documents.

By comparison, a 2010 Civil Beat analysis showed that the highest-paid DOE employee was Kathryn Matayoshi, who earns $150,000.

Punahou, whose nearly 3,800 students make it the second largest private school in Hawaii after Kamehameha Schools, offers similar justifications to Iolani for its $19,950 tuition and the schools’ prices have increased at a similar pace in recent years. Next school year, Punahou will boost the annual tuition to $20,700. Just 15 percent of its students receive financial aid, with awards averaging about $8,700 per student, according to spokeswoman Carlyn Tani.

Tuition revenues cover about 80 percent of the total amount it costs to educate a student at Punahou, she said. The rest of the money — about $5,000 per student — comes from philanthropic gifts and the school’s endowment. Tani noted that any long-term debt servicing and new construction at Punahou is funded by non-tuition revenue such as private donations.

Punahou’s highest-earning employee is President Jim Scott, who makes about $400,000, in addition to about $37,000 from other Punahou compensation sources, according to its 2012 financial disclosure form.

For comparison’s sake, Kamehameha Schools, which costs about $7,700 for boarding students, provides financial aid for two-thirds of its students. Boarders included, financial aid awards average about $4,500 per student, according to spokesman Pakalani Bello.

Meanwhile, Honolulu’s Sacred Hearts School, a 970-student Catholic school for girls that charges about $10,000 in tuition, grants 39 percent of its student body financial aid. Such support amounts to $2,500 per student, according to Director of Admissions Karen Muramoto.

But while many private school students get some financial assistance, most do not. And many of these students come from middle-class families that either barely miss the cut for financial aid eligibility or simply don’t get any.

10 Most Expensive Schools Cost 10 Least Expensive Schools Cost
Punahou $19,200 Kamehameha Schools $3,225
Hawaii Preparatory Academy $18,500 Koolau Baptist Academy $3,600
Mid-Pacific Institute $18,300 Haili Christian School $3,500
Hanahauoli $18,100 E Makaala School $3,825
Iolani $17,800 Adventist Malama Elementary $4,060
Seabury Hall $17,330 Kohala Mission School $4,200
Academy of the Pacific $17,200 Olelo Christian Academy $4,250
La Pietra $17,100 Maili Bible School $4,597
Le Jardin Academy $16,315 Friendship Christian Schools $4,410
St. Andrew’s Priory $15,540 Mauna Loa School $4,000


Note: Data reflects median tuition rates for the 2012-13 school year, the most recent year for which consistent, usable data is available, and excludes special-purpose schools.


How to Save on Education?

Some parents say the responsibility of saving parents money on schools rests with the state, which is in charge of funding public school improvement projects and ensuring academic quality. If the state were to make public schools into places that promise every child a quality education, maybe parents wouldn’t feel the need to spend on private schools.

Another strategy that hasn’t been implemented in Hawaii involves private school vouchers and tax credits, but those approaches are highly controversial, with critics arguing that transferring money away from public schools will only weaken them. Such an approach also faces great opposition from many public school teachers, administrators and parents.

Public school advocates such as Yamauchi and Bayer argue that many of the problems at public schools trace back, in part, to people’s false perceptions about them, which drive active parents away from public education. This, in turn, leads to a loss of those parents’ time and energy for the public school system. Ultimately, this can exacerbate the challenges faced by struggling schools.

Yamauchi encourages parents who might not otherwise consider public schools to give them a chance by doing their own research and actually visiting campuses.

She says supports parents who seek geographic exceptions — waivers from the DOE allowing them to enroll their children in a school outside of their district — in order to place their kids in the most reputable schools. Not all public schools are equal, but many offer different programs.

Yamauchi also pointed to charter schools as an alternative for parents who are dissatisfied with regular public schools.

And more than anything, she said, the public school system should create an environment where parents feel they have a say in their children’s education so that they don’t have to turn to private schools as a last resort.

Parents may or may not see it as a last resort, but it is definitely a costly decision.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.



About the Author