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The people have spoken, and lawmakers have finally heard them: Hawaii’s sweltering classrooms need to cool off.
How to accomplish that will be a top priority this legislative session, possibly snagging even more attention than the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s ambitious proposal for wide-ranging education reforms.
Lawmakers had put forth at least half a dozen bills in the House addressing classroom air conditioning and another five in the Senate as of Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the deadline for submitting bills this session.
“I think we’ve heard from the community more than anything else that good education, quality schools and facilities that don’t force children to learn in 100-plus-degree heat should be a priority,” said Rep. Chris Lee. “I think the timing is right.”
More than 40 lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors of Lee’s air conditioning bill, which also calls for the Department of Education to set goals for reducing energy consumption by 2035, and would authorize general obligation bonds to pay for heat abatement — in particular solar-powered air conditioning.
General obligation bonds are just one of the ideas being bandied about for funding heat abatement and other school facility improvements. One bill calls for tax credits, another for establishing a lottery. There’s the HSTA’s proposal to raise the general excise tax, and another to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow the Board of Education to levy a real estate tax surcharge.
“Clearly this is a year about money and how to raise it or not, how to spend it or not,” said Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.
Last year was relatively uneventful for education in the Legislature, in part because lawmakers were waiting for newly elected Gov. David Ige to articulate his vision.
Ige has yet to put forth any large education reforms the way his predecessor did with the push for early childhood education.
“I don’t know that (Gov. Ige) has an agenda or vision for public education,” Shon said. “I think he has a vision for administering public education at the school level.”
Rather than focus on legislation, Ige’s strategy when it comes to education might be changing the composition of the Board of Education and impacting education policy that way, Shon said.
But Ige has joined the chorus calling for school air conditioning. In his State of the State address Monday, Ige said his office was working with the DOE, private companies and other state departments to put air conditioners in 1,000 classrooms by the end of the year.
The state would do this in part, Ige said, by tapping its Green Energy Market Securitization fund for $100 million. The program was created to help residents and nonprofits in Hawaii borrow money to install solar panels and other green energy improvements.
Cooler schools and the union’s omnibus proposal are just two of the issues being taken up by the Legislature this year. Other highlights include:
• Modifications to the state’s ethics policy to allow teachers to take free trips.
• Additional funding for charter schools to pay teacher bonuses already in the union contract.
• Changes to the Weighted Student Formula, including a 2 percent increase across the board and additional funding for English language learners.
• A cap on school class sizes and a minimum starting salary for teachers of $55,000.
Lawmakers are still waiting for more details on Ige’s plan, but they are hopeful that it will be workable, said Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee. Luke said it’s not clear to her that Green Energy money can be used for exactly what the governor wants, but that the issue of air conditioning is clearly something that the Legislature needs to address.
One theme in the slew of proposed legislation for heat abatement in schools is a focus on alternative ways to address the issue beyond installing traditional central air conditioning systems. That means partnering with businesses, funding off-the-grid air conditioning pilot programs, and looking for systems that won’t involve massive upgrades to school electrical capabilities.
“I know a lot of other stakeholders working in energy have ideas to tackle the issue,” said Rep. Takashi Ohno, vice chair of the House Education Committee.
Last year, the DOE’s estimate for installing air conditioning at all schools was $1.7 billion.
Although heat abatement has long been an issue in Hawaii — where the vast majority of schools lack central air conditioning — record-breaking heat at the start of this school year galvanized teacher and parent efforts.
It’s also an issue that will likely play well in an election year.
“Clearly on one level if you deal with air conditioning it’s a great thing to run for re-election on,” Shon said. “And it avoids all the other complicated education issues. It’s almost not an education issue, it’s ‘How do you cool a building?'”
The HSTA’s omnibus bill is one of the biggest proposals for education reform seen in recent years.
At its heart is a 1 percent increase in the general excise tax, something that HSTA says would raise about $750 million a year. That funding would go to several initiatives, from air conditioning to free public preschool and lower class sizes.
Although it is being introduced in its entirety in both the House and Senate, it is already being split into numerous individual bills that address specific facets of the plan.
The most important part of the bill— and the hardest to get passed — is “fully funding our schools,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said. In other words, the tax increase.
Here are a few other ideas being floated this year:
• HB2228 would make voter registration a high school graduation requirement.
• HB2426 would make the Board of Education hold its meetings between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. to increase community access.
• SB394 calls for all students to receive an HPV vaccination before entering the seventh grade.
The union is planning to rally in front of the Capitol on Feb. 5, and has hinted at other plans in the works for raising support for the bill during the session.
“We want to see how far it will get,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said. “We know this is a big challenge, but the reality is the problem of our schools is not going to go away and I don’t think we can ignore our children forever. We are going to be pushing as hard as we can.”
Few people seem to think that the omnibus bill has much of a chance of passing though, hence the move to break it into smaller chunks.
For Ohno, who is introducing the omnibus bill in the House, some of the most important individual components are a reduction in class sizes, the tax increase, and limiting high-stakes testing to three school days a year.
The apparent lack of widespread enthusiasm for passing such a broad package doesn’t mean the omnibus will be dismissed outright.
Though the Legislature may not be keen on adopting a general excise tax increase for education, the bill will be examined carefully because it bundles a number of issues that many lawmakers are deeply concerned about, Rep. Luke said.