Editor’s Note: Civil Beat asked Mufi Hannemann, the Hawaii Independent Party candidate for governor, numerous times throughout September for an interview for this story but he was never available. 

Hawaii is the only state that isn’t broken up by multiple school districts. That means Hawaii — whose population of roughly 1.4 million people makes it the 11th smallest state —  actually encompasses one of the largest school districts in the country.

The ninth largest one, to be exact, costing taxpayers nearly $1.5 billion dollars annually for operations alone. Together, the Department of Education and charter schools are the state’s single biggest expense. 

The state’s school district serves more than 185,000 students (and their parents) and roughly 25,000 employees, a little over half of whom are teachers. From Niihau to Keaau, that district comprises a hodgepodge of cultures and income groups, school contexts and learning needs. 

And according to both Duke Aiona and David Ige — the Republican and Democrat vying to be Hawaii’s next governor — therein lies one of the greatest challenges facing public education in the state.

Kindergarten students at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014

Kindergarten students at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

In fact, the two candidates have a lot in common when it comes to assessing Hawaii’s public schools. One of the only education issues on which they appear to disagree strongly is the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to amend Hawaii’s constitution and permit the allocation of public funds for private preschools. Aiona supports it, while Ige opposes it. 

Both Aiona and Ige think that Hawaii’s students aren’t achieving their full potential in the classroom and that the state imposes unfair expectations on teachers.

Ige is endorsed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, and his wife is a vice principal at Kanoelani Elementary School in Waipio. Aiona sometimes works as a substitute teacher at Kapolei and Holomua elementary schools. 

Aiona and Ige regularly use the phrase “school empowerment” when talking about how they’d overhaul Hawaii’s DOE, a term they defined as enabling principals and teachers — rather than state administrators and the appointed, nine-member Board of Education — to decide what happens in the classroom. Neither of them are very happy with the BOE, saying they support the idea of an appointed board but question the quality of current members’ expertise. 

Their focus could be a response to — or at least a reflection of — the public disapproval that seems to have dominated conversations about the DOE lately. One of the most obvious examples of that disapproval is the newly formed Education Institute of Hawaii, which promotes “school empowerment” and is being spearheaded by a board of directors that includes seven retired principals and Randy Roth, who as former Gov. Linda Lingle’s education advisor pushed for decentralizing the state’s school district.  

Both Aiona and Ige said they’re skeptical of the Common Core standards, new universal math and language arts learning benchmarks that went live in Hawaii schools this fall. The standards are being used as a factor to determine teachers’ evaluation scores and, ultimately, their pay. 

And they both lament what they describe as the failure of Act 51 — the decade-old law that aimed to “reinvent” the DOE, namely by how schools are funded — to fully achieve most of its objectives. The far-reaching reform legislation strived to give principals more control over their budgets and created the “weighted student formula,” which bases a school’s allocations on student need rather than strictly on enrollment. 

Aiona: All About Options

When it comes to education, Aiona believes in options. He believes the state should do a better job of ensuring parents can enroll their kids in any kind of educational program they choose, from Hawaiian immersion charter schools to Catholic college preparatory institutions. 

Aiona says education in Hawaii should resemble the “free market.”  Aiona, who was raised Catholic, attended Maryknoll and St. Louis schools, as did two of his four children. The other two attended Kamehameha Schools. 

The state’s public schools, Aiona said, should aim to prepare students for competition in the 21st-century economy, whether that means continuing their education in college or going straight into careers and jobs. One of his first initiatives would be an “early college” program that would be almost entirely funded by local businesses, foundations and federal grants and allow high school students to graduate with both an associate degree and diploma.

Aiona, who has Native Hawaiian ancestry, criticized the state’s treatment of Hawaiian immersion public schools, particularly its failure to deliver standardized assessments in the language. 

Duke Aiona Kakaako Gateway Makai Park 6.16.14

GOP gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

He also wants greater support for parents who home-school their children, which represent about 3 percent of the state’s public-school population. 

“There are a lot of families where home-schooling is not just a convenience — it’s not about keeping their children in a bubble — it’s really about giving them an opportunity to excel,” he said. 

Specifically, Aiona, a longtime athlete and sports coach, said he would push for legislation making home-school children eligible to participate in extracurricular activities at their neighborhood public school. Sen. Sam Slom, the state’s only Republican Senator, has long advocated for the policy to little avail.  

Given Aiona’s view of education as a free-market enterprise, it’s no surprise that Aiona supports the ballot measure that that would allow the government to subsidize families that want to send their children to private preschools. He’s the only top gubernatorial candidate to say he’s voting yes on the ballot initiative. 

Interestingly, a recent Civil Beat poll found that those identifying as moderates and conservatives generally said they are voting no on the question, while those identifying as liberals said they are voting yes. (Overall, the poll of 1,055 registered voters suggested that people are torn about the issue, with 45 percent saying they oppose the idea and 40 percent saying they support it.)

The biggest problem with the DOE, Aiona said, is school governance. He spoke of the unsuccessful efforts of Lingle, under whom Aiona served as lieutenant governor, to break up the public school system into a network of school boards — but he didn’t go as far as saying he would decentralize the state into separate school districts. 

Aiona said the formula for school funding created by Act 51, which factors in both schools’ enrollment and needs and was passed during Lingle’s tenure, hasn’t achieved its mission of streamlining the DOE and making school finance more equitable.

He cited the Common Core standards as one example of a centralized DOE-gone-wrong. The “cookie-cutter” standards and related requirements are taking a toll on educators’ morale, which exacerbates already-high teacher turnover rates, he said, adding that he questions the Common Core but wouldn’t necessarily eliminate them. 

“When you don’t see value to something and you’re forced to do it, the morale is lowered a little — you lose that spirit,” he said. “And as such some of them just go through the motions, and they’re not teaching because of the passion they had when they wanted to embark on this profession.”

Policies such as those involving standards and curriculum have to be developed at a much more local level, he said. 

Aiona acknowledges that restructuring the DOE is a hefty task that involves  years of policymaking and a significant change in attitude. 

To kick things off, Aiona would call for an independent management audit of the DOE to identify specific areas that the department should run more efficiently. 

Ige: ‘Leadership at the School Level’

Ige, a graduate of Pearl City High School, also believes in decentralization.

“I’ve always believed that school reform will be driven by leadership at the school level,” he told Civil Beat back in June. 

Ige was more pointed than Aiona in his criticism of the BOE, arguing that it hasn’t done its part to engage with the public. He wonders why the board doesn’t hold hearings on the neighbor islands anymore, noting, “It’s clear the board hasn’t been open to community input.”

“People with broader connection and commitment to public education would’ve been important,” he said, referring to the board Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed.

In particular, Ige questioned why the board brushed off the “very, very serious concerns” raised in a recent independent survey conducted among 160 of the state’s 255 DOE principals, including the widespread fear of retaliation for speaking out. 

The board renewed Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi’s contract just days after a group of critics, citing the survey, formally called for a leadership overhaul at the department. Those critics include some of the people on the board of the new Education Institute of Hawaii. 

“If you believe, and I do, that principals and teachers at the school level (are) a key component for school transformation, then what does it say if your key leaders say the system isn’t working?” Ige said.

Gubernatorial candidate Sen. David Ige Morning Glass Coffee Manoa

State Sen. David Ige discussing education at Morning Glass Coffee in Manoa earlier this year.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ige was noncommittal when asked about breaking the state up into separate school districts but said he would entertain the idea of shifting more funding responsibility to the counties.

Ige says the state should hold off on using the Common Core standards as benchmarks to which schools are held accountable. He agrees with the Gates Foundation’s call for a moratorium on the use of the Common Core in “high-stakes decisions” such as teacher evaluations, a recommendation that hasn’t resulted in a change locally. 

The former Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman said one of his main concerns about the current evaluation system is that it requires 15 times the resources than in the past but hasn’t been accompanied by the same amount of school-level support. He called the system “off-based.”

Still, Ige doesn’t regret his highly scrutinized decision to kill a series of key education-related proposals this year. The state, he reasoned, simply couldn’t afford to fulfill those promises, something he realized after the Council on Revenues’ downgraded forecast. The bills would’ve cost an additional $90 million, he said. 

That legislation included a bill that would have required the DOE to survey schools’ classroom needs and develop a “master cooling strategy.” 

“We can only do what we can afford, and on a lot of fronts we just couldn’t afford it,” Ige said, adding that his committee allocated more funding to the weighted student formula than the DOE and Abercrombie had requested. The Legislature gave the department $15 million for school-based budgeting rather than the $14 million included in the DOE’s supplementary budget request.

A legislative report from Ige’s committee, which was working on the bill when the funding level was adjusted, reads: “These funds go directly to schools to provide resources for students.  Your Committee reiterates its intent that all funds appropriated for the WSF be expended at the discretion of principals and that the use of the funds shall not be directed by the central office, district, or complex.”

One specific reform Ige would implement is an opportunity for teachers to work year-round and be compensated for that time. Principals and state administrators, he pointed out, are some of the only DOE employees who have that option. Such work would include opportunities to design curriculum and mentor, he said. 

Ige’s three children graduated from private schools — two from Punahou and one from Iolani — after attending Pearl Ridge Elementary in their earlier years. 

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