It seemed like public education was emerging as a winner this legislative session.

But most of the key school-related bills — including a statewide preschool program — died when the legislative clock struck 6 p.m. Friday, the hard deadline for joint Senate and House committees to negotiate final wording on legislation before the final votes.

Lawmakers on the finance committees failed to OK the 14 education bills that still needed approval — even though most of the bills didn’t have an appropriation attached to them. But, under legislative rules, the measures couldn’t advance without the committees’ go-ahead.

It’s unclear why the money committee chairs — Sen. David Ige and Rep. Sylvia Luke — didn’t sign off on the bills. Even Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chairs the Education, was at a loss as to explain what happened at the end.

But it seems as though Ige and Luke failed to notify Tokuda that they were conducting last-minute deliberations on bills with committee chairs, and Tokuda missed her opportunity to jockey for the bills, she said.

“We were on the other side — we weren’t part of the procedures,” Tokuda told Civil Beat.

Shortly before 6 p.m., Tokuda warned that the bills would likely die.

“We have no authority, and we do have a clock unfortunately that will get to 6 at some point,” she said.

Tokuda said she was very disappointed, particularly because many of the bills had garnered mutual support from groups that normally disagree on issues. What makes the turn of events even more frustrating, Tokuda said, is that most of them didn’t need any money.

Several of the bills — from those promoting early childhood learning to those aimed at better funding charter schools — would have significantly altered the state’s education landscape.

“It’s kind of sad that this doesn’t get to the finish point,” said GG Weisenfeld, director of the Executive Office on Early Learning.

One of the bills to die was House Bill 2276, which would have set the groundwork for a statewide preschool system. The bill was contingent on whether voters choose to ratify a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would allow the state to use public money for private preschools.

One preschool bill, however, was given the green light on Wednesday: a plan to develop pre-kindergarten classrooms at some of the state’s public schools. While the appropriation for the program is significantly less than advocates had hoped for — the finance committee chopped the allocation down to $3 million from $5.2 million — it does bring Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s early education initiative one step forward.

Tokuda said she plans on re-introducing the measures next year.

Here’s a breakdown of key education bills that died Friday evening:

Charter School Facilities

A group of measures sought to come up with more funding for the state’s charter school facilities.

Hawaii’s 33 charter schools have long struggled to pay for construction, campus upkeep, and even basic furniture because — unlike regular public schools — they can’t dip into capital improvement funds. Instead, the schools have to rely on their operating budgets to cover those costs.

Without money for facilities, some charter schools have had to hold classes in tents or portables. One school even has some of its students using plastic buckets for seats.

The bills would have helped offset some of those costs in various ways.

Senate Bill 2516 would have given the state Charter School Commission money that it could then distribute among select charter schools for facilities projects.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 2517 allowed the charter school commission to request general obligation bonds from the state and then allocate those proceeds to charter schools to help them pay for facilities.

House Bill 2576 created a special fund for charter school facilities and established an income tax credit for people who contribute to it.

Superintendent Salary

House Bill 2257 would have increased the ceiling on the Hawaii Department of Education superintendent’s salary.

The salary, which is currently capped at $150,000, hasn’t been adjusted since 2000. Advocates of the bill, including school board Chair Don Horner, said the increase is crucial if the state wants to recruit competitive, top-notch people for the position.

Bill supporters also pointed to a study showing that the current salary is by far the lowest among the 15 largest school districts in the country. Hawaii’s DOE, which is the only statewide district in the U.S., is the country’s ninth largest district. Moreover, as current Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi has noted, because of collective bargaining some principals can actually make more than the superintendent.

Restraint & Seclusion

House Bill 1796 aimed to crack down on the use of restraint methods on children in public schools and specify when, if at all, those practices are permissible.

The bill also prohibited the use of seclusion on children — locking them in a closet, for example. Earlier versions of the measure permitted the practice under specific conditions.

Recent abuse cases gave urgency to the measure, including one at Kipapa Elementary School, where an administrative law judge recently ruled that several autistic children were physically and emotionally abused by school staff members.

Some of the Kipapa children, according to reports, were inappropriately restrained and tied to chairs and desks. One staffer allegedly made a 9-year-old girl eat her own vomit after force-feeding her.

Hawaii is one of the few states without clear policies or laws on restraint and seclusion. Advocates say the absence of rules creates a breeding ground for child abuse. It also makes the state vulnerable to lawsuits, they say.

HB 1796 created a clear statute that the department would then supplement with administrative rules outlining the circumstances under which restraint can be used. It stipulated strict training and notification requirements for any instructor who uses restraint. It also required schools to collect and maintain data on instances involving restraint.

Instructional Hours

House Bill 1675 would have turned the clock back on a controversial policy passed in 2010 that set across-the-board minimum instructional time for all schools.

The 2010 law has over the years required schools to gradually increase how much time they keep their students in the classroom. The minimum is slated to increase to 990 hours for secondary schools over the academic year and to 1,080 hours for all schools the following year.

HB 1675 kept the 990-hour minimum but deleted the 1,080-hour provision on the grounds that the expectation isn’t realistic and fails to account for the other time that students spend learning outside of the classroom.

The 2010 law was passed in response to Furlough Fridays, a desperate effort to salvage the state’s public education budget by eliminating 34 days of classroom time from the school calendars in 2009 and 2010.

Proponents of HB 1675 said the 2010 law has significantly disrupted the schools by setting drastic expectations and enforcing a black-and-white approach to student learning.

But critics said the bill would reverse all the work that was put into the law.

About the Author