In “Debate is Crucial to Overcome the Private-Public School Divide,” Sterling Higa details the virtues of speech and debate programs and advocates their funding in public schools. Having been involved with the Hawaiʻi Speech League from 1999 – 2009, I laud these efforts.

I think that they, however, are impeded by Higa’s emphasis on tournament ranking and membership count. Moreover, Higa’s suggestion that public schools are “deprived” of the resources of civic engagement overlooks the fierce commitment of coaches to student growth whether money is around or not.

When Higa describes his speech and debate team at Roosevelt High School, I cringe. I proudly served that “measly program” as debate captain, president, and debate coach. Over the years, Roosevelt developed a reputation for producing formidable debaters. When I joined, only two members did debate. A mere five years later, we secured the top three positions in Lincoln-Douglas Debate at the state tournament.

Pearl City High School graduation

Students graduating at Pearl City High.

Courtesy Pearl City High School

This kind of public school success extended beyond Roosevelt. During my nine years of involvement, Mckinley High School was a powerhouse team. So were University Laboratory School and Kahuku High School (which fellow competitor Andrew Savini has detailed elegantly in his comment on Higa’s article). In fact, every public school could boast of competitors who ranked high and made the kids at private schools tremble. If Higa had been aware of this history, his article might have been different. How could smaller, poorer teams beat the bigger, loaded ones?

That question aside, speech and debate programs change lives in ways unreflected by ranking. As a coach, your heart swells when your team succeeds, sinks when it doesn’t. Tournament results are besides the point when you see the growth of students who have come to be so dear to you.

Through speech and debate, students learn to research, listen carefully, and think quickly and critically. Curiosity is provoked. Creativity is enriched. Empathy blossoms. Indifference gives way to political engagement. Ineloquent opinions become articulate arguments. The timid develop grit.

Speech and debate helps students in countless areas beyond high school, from college placement to academic performance, job interviews to career accomplishments, civic participation to being an informed, ethical, and compassionate person.

Trophies rust while the benefits of speech and debate shine forever. I am sure that this fact was the main fuel behind inspirational coaches such as Daniel Addis, John Bickel, and Corey Rosen (Roosevelt), Winnie Graham (Kahuku), John Newkirk (McKinley), and Bill Teter (University Lab). They devoted countless hours with admirable motivation and little or no monetary compensation. With the tenacity of students, they led their teams to victory. More importantly, they cultivated the personal, academic, and civic growth that Higa implies is reserved for elites when he describes the “inequitable distributions of civic resources” between public and well-funded private schools.

If I were to have written Higa’s article, I would not have emphasized the successes of private schools and the deficiencies of public ones. Should public schools receive funding for speech and debate programs? Of course, but not because of disparities in results and membership.

Instead, it would be due to the incomparable merits of speech and debate, to the fact that already-underpaid teachers take on extra work, and, above all, to the unparalleled passion and dedication of students and coaches. I am especially disappointed that Higa omits that last reason, because I would have proclaimed it, firstly and loudly, with the voice given to me by a public school speech and debate team.


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