It’s big. It’s bold. And it faces an uphill battle in a Legislature known for being fiscally conservative — especially in election years.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association’s recent proposal to raise the state’s general excise tax to fund a broad swath of education reforms is also the kind of dramatic action that new union leaders promised when they won the union election last summer in an upset over more experienced and entrenched union leadership.

“For too long we have ignored education in Hawaii,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said. “Now finally we are saying, ‘this must change.’”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee center during press conference held on 22 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee talks during a press conference in May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

HSTA’s proposal calls for raising the GET by 1 percent to bring in an estimated $750 million a year.

While most of the attention so far has been focused on the idea of a tax increase, the union’s full proposal bundles an unprecedented array of education issues — such as installing air conditioning in all classrooms over the next five years, establishing universal preschool and increasing the amount of time spent each day on arts education.

Former HSTA Executive Director Joan Husted said she doesn’t recall the union ever putting forth a proposal of this size before.

“Regardless of how powerful HSTA is here, there are certainly things they’ve never been able to get.” — Neal Milner

State Sen. Michelle Kidani has agreed to introduce legislation that includes the union proposal, the HSTA said, and political observers say Rosenlee’s efforts to rally support for the bill will likely go well beyond traditional lobbying efforts.

Rosenlee is perhaps best known for organizing the Work to the Rule protests, which made national headlines in 2012. During the protests, which started after teachers had worked more than a year without a negotiated contract, teachers worked only the mandated hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — drawing attention to all the work that teachers usually do on their own time, such as grading papers and overseeing extracurricular activities.

The union plans to rally at the state Capitol from 3 to 6 p.m. Feb. 5  in support of the legislation.

Beyond that event, Rosenlee said, “you’ll just have to wait and see.”

‘Trying To Look At The Big Picture’

HSTA’s proposed legislation, which it announced Dec. 9, is the result of conversations with hundreds of teachers across the state in recent months, Rosenlee said.

“We are trying to look at the big picture and ask this question: How can we improve education in Hawaii?” Rosenlee said.

The legislation is currently in draft form, with only a summary released so far. Here are a few highlights:

  • Allocate more instructional time and financial resources to teaching art classes and Hawaiian studies. The proposal is modeled after New York state, which mandates that 20 percent of elementary school instruction be spent on the arts, Rosenlee said.
  • Create a maximum caseload for special education teachers using a weighted system, rather than just the number of students. The weighted system would be determined by a state committee.
  • Cap class sizes at 20 students in elementary schools and 26 in high school.
  • Put air conditioners in every classroom in the state in the next five years.
  • Modify Hawaii’s Weighted Student Formula for funding to increase resources for small and rural schools. Create minimum staffing levels so that every school has a librarian, technology coordinator, vice principal and counselor. All high schools would have a special education transition coordinator.
  • Encourage more young people to pursue a career in education by creating a student loan subsidy program, where teachers can get reimbursed up to $10,000 after three years in the classroom.
  • Cap the number of days that students are required to spend taking standardized tests at three days a year, and make it easier for parents to opt kids out of tests. A test day would be any day when students spend more than three hours taking or preparing for standardized tests.
  • Allocate $125 million to make free public preschool available to all kids in the state.
Pearl City High School fans on full blast on a warm day. Shot during career day. DOE fans. 20 nov 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Pearl City High School fans on full blast on a hot November day without air conditioning. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Challenges Moving Forward

Sen. Kidani may have agreed to introduce HSTA’s omnibus legislation, but according to a member of her staff, the senator has not read the draft yet, and declined to comment on the proposed legislation.

Getting a bill introduced is the easy part, said Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii professor emeritus and Civil Beat columnist. Getting the bill to go somewhere is an entirely different matter.

Tax increases are a tough sell, Milner said.

“If the purpose of the bill is to raise awareness as to the importance of public education in our state, then it certainly is worthy of a community discussion.” — state Rep. Roy Takumi

“Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t make a difference,” Milner said. “This Legislature is loathe to do that.”

Democrats have traditionally been sympathetic to the teachers union, but there are limits, Milner said.

“Regardless of how powerful HSTA is here, there are certainly things they’ve never been able to get,” Milner said. 

Gov. David Ige said he agrees with many of the HSTA priorities, but not with its proposed funding mechanism.

Another consideration is that even if new tax revenue is approved and earmarked for education, that doesn’t mean the state can’t slash the Department of Education budget in other ways.

“If an extra $750 million a year goes to the Department of Education, what is going to prevent legislators from saying, ‘Thank you very much, we now have $750 million to go to other stuff?’” said Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at UH Manoa.

Others raise questions about the cost of some of the proposals. For example, the legislation would set aside $125 million for public preschools. But that big of an increase in preschool enrollment could present infrastructure challenges, state Rep. Roy Takumi said in an email.

Using figures the state came up with two years ago, Takumi estimates the DOE would need 500 additional classrooms at a cost of perhaps $75 million.

“We would also have to look carefully at the funding mechanism in the bill,” Takumi wrote.  

Chair Representative Roy Takumi during education hearing. 16 march 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Roy Takumi chairs the House Education Committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

While the state gave counties the ability to raise the GET by half a percent for transportation projects for five years, that has a beginning and an end, Takumi said.

“Raising the GET to fund education has no end,” Takumi wrote. “Whether this is good public policy will certainly be debated.”

“But if the purpose of the bill is to raise awareness as to the importance of public education in our state, then it certainly is worthy of a community discussion,” Takumi wrote.

Even if the HSTA proposal doesn’t go far, mobilizing teachers and raising public awareness about education issues could be a big boost for the union.

Rosenlee said the union is bundling the proposals in an omnibus bill because many of the issues are interrelated. Having one bill to debate also makes it easier for teachers to come and testify.

“I can see the auditorium filled up for a couple of long hearings,” Shon said.

Rosenlee is raising the stakes by providing a plan with enough details to create a real discussion about education, Shon said.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘we need to lower class sizes and it’s your job to figure out how,’” Shon said. “They are saying, ‘lower the class size, here’s what it will cost and here’s how to fund it.’ That’s already a conversation instead of a non-starter, and that’s a positive thing.”

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