UPDATED 10/2/14 4:10 p.m.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association has spent at least $142,290 on its campaign to discourage Hawaii voters from approving a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to spend public money on private preschool programs, according to publicly available documents.

But as of this week, a TV ad and other related media paid for by the HSTA are nowhere to be seen. The commercials were running on a number of television stations last week.

Stryker Weiner & Yakota, the union’s public relations firm, sent out a press release on Sept. 22 announcing the HSTA’s campaign and distributing links to the commercial on Vimeo and the union’s webpage for the campaign

The links, however, have not worked since at least Sept. 29.

hsta rally

The HSTA is the only union representing Hawaii’s public school teachers and often engages in political activity, including at this rally last October.

Alia Wong/Civil Beat

Lea Okudara, a spokeswoman for the union, confirmed to Civil Beat on Monday that “the HSTA ads are currently not running” even though the union’s original contracts with the stations included spots that were slated to run this week.

Okudara said Wednesday she didn’t know why the ads are off the air. The HSTA’s executive director, Al Nagasako, didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday, and the union’s president, Wil Okabe, was out of town and unavailable for an interview.

The union, the sole bargaining entity for the state’s roughly 13,000 teachers, launched the communications effort late last month. The TV spot argues the amendment will only bring preschool opportunities for “the privileged few.”

Records from the state’s Campaign Spending Commission and Federal Communications Commission show that the commercials were paid for by the HSTA’s political action committee, which is funded by the union. That includes a $140,727 payment to Fuel Communications Inc. to run the TV commercials on KHON, KITV, KGMB and KHNL through the Nov. 4 election, and $1,562 to Stryker Weiner & Yakota to produce the commercial.

The HSTA gets most of its revenue from membership dues, according to the union’s most recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service. The HSTA is the exclusive bargaining unit for DOE teachers, and their dues are deducted directly from their paychecks. A full-time teacher pays about $700 in dues per year.

At issue is Question No. 4, which, as Civil Beat has reported, is the most controversial statewide ballot initiative facing Hawaii voters this year. The proposal would enable the public-private preschool system that Gov. Neil Abercrombie — who clashed with the teachers unionenvisioned as part of his early education initiative.

The constitutional amendment would permit the state to contract with private preschool providers and, its supporters say, allow more of Hawaii’s 17,500 or so 4-year-olds to gain early education opportunities.  The vast majority — 96 percent — of existing preschools in the state are private, and advocates say the amendment is key to expanding access to the children of low- and middle-income families that might not otherwise be able to afford the tuition. Preschool for a 4-year-old in Hawaii costs about $8,000 a year on average.

Proponents also say the public-private system would cost taxpayers less money because much of the infrastructure is already in place and because it wouldn’t rely entirely on public-sector educators, who are funded through collective bargaining.

The HSTA prefers a preschool model that’s fully funded by the state and involves establishing pre-kindergarten classrooms on DOE campuses statewide.

Wil Okabe, the HSTA’s president, has told Civil Beat that the public model is the only approach that ensures preschool opportunities that don’t discriminate between the wealthy and the poor, the gifted and those with special needs. He also says it would end up costing the state less.

UPDATE: The HSTA registered a PAC called “For the Future of Our Keiki” with the Campaign Spending Commission on Wednesday as a committee focusing specifically on Question No. 4. Its bookkeeper is Roger Takabayashi, the union’s former president and a current member of the state’s charter school commission.

The state has specific rules for committees that receive contributions or make expenditures exclusively “for or against any question or issue appearing on the ballot in the next applicable election,” including that the committee terminate its registration within 90 days after the election. 

Three additional ballot issue committees have registered with the Campaign Spending Commission to exclusively advocate for or against Question No. 4: the Good Beginnings Alliance — Children’s Action Network, Kamehameha Schools Early Education Support and Learning Matters. 

FCC filings show that Good Beginnings Alliance, the only other committee that appears to have purchased airtime for Question No. 4 so far, has spent nearly $300,000 on commercials. Its 30-second ad is titled “Yes on 4 — Yes Brainer” and argues that the amendment “will give more kids a chance for a healthy start when brain development is at its peak.” 

Good Beginnings Alliance’s PAC has reported receiving $505,200 from donors, including $500,000 from Kamehameha Schools. The alliance’s campaign also has the support of business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Business Roundtable.

An archived version of the HSTA’s campaign webpage includes several posts, including local news stories and a FAQ write-up with answers to questions such as “Why do educators and elected and community leaders OPPOSE the Abercrombie plan?” and “How should I vote on the amendment?”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Ige, who is endorsed by the HSTA, opposes the constitutional amendment. His Republican opponent, Duke Aiona, supports it.

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