The lineup of K-12 education proposals in the Hawaii Legislature this year is anchored by two recurring issues: boosting funding for public charter schools and improving the quality of education for special needs and rural students.

HB 2508 reintroduces the idea of creating a separate facilities funding stream for start-up charter schools, which must locate and pay for their building leases from their operating budgets without additional assistance from the state.

While a similar measure died in conference last year, supporters express cautious optimism it might gain more traction this session as charter schools gain more visibility. The percentage of Hawaii students enrolled in charter schools, for instance, increased this year.

Students from Lanakila Baptist School participate in a school choice rally near the Capitol. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

“People don’t understand that all of our charter schools are public,” said Rep. Justin Woodson, House Education Committee chairman and the bill’s sponsor.

He added, however, “I think the awareness of the need (for facilities funding) is definitely greater than in years past.”

Two other bills, SB 2383 and HB 2162, would provide charter schools money to award teacher bonuses without having to dip into the school’s per-pupil funding, which is roughly $7,343 per student. The $5,000 year-end bonuses awarded to traditional public schools teachers historically come from a separate line item in the Department of Education budget.

The slate of other education proposals includes capping the number of standardized tests given to students each year, media literacy instruction, commercialization of items produced by schools’ career academies and providing housing vouchers for teachers in the costliest state in the country.

On Friday, the Hawaii State Teachers Association unveiled its top legislative priorities this year.

“I think there are big things we need to accomplish in education,” said Corey Rosenlee, head of the teachers union.

“Funding (alone) is not going to solve the problem but we’re not going to solve the problem without funding.”

Among other things, the HSTA wants the Legislature to approve a 2018 ballot question proposing a tax surcharge on residential investment properties valued at $1 million or more and visitor accommodations to fund the public schools.

The $500 million yearly revenue generated by such a tax would help fund the state’s teacher retention effort, expand public preschool, improve special education, expand Hawaiian language instruction and add after-school programs, according to the proposed legislation.

Unlike mainland states, Hawaii doesn’t use property taxes to finance its public schools, which serve roughly 179,000 students across the state through 256 traditional public schools and 36 charter schools. The charter schools serve 10,600 students.

The visitor accommodation surcharge would increase Hawaii’s per-pupil-spending by about 15 to 20 percent, according to Rosenlee. Right now, that figure is $12,855 per student, which lags behind mainland states when adjusted for cost of living, he said.

Rep Sam Kong joint senate house education hearing.
House Education Chair Justin Woodson, center, is flanked by Senate Education Chair Michelle Kidani, to his right, and Rep. Sam Kong, a member of the House Education Committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A pair of House bills proposing a similar tax died in conference last year.

This year’s proposal, backed by education chairs in the House and Senate, would put the question before the voters rather than establishing the surcharge itself.

“We decided this year, let’s not get caught up in the details,” said Rosenlee. “The only thing we’re asking is whether legislators will let the people decide. If it passes the Leg, and it passes the public, then we can start dealing with the details.”

Another bill would give teachers a cost-of-living break — and perhaps convince them to stay in their jobs here longer — by offering a $500 monthly housing subsidy.

While education observers applaud the idea, they also point to the broader issue of limited housing supply on the island.

“Even if you have a voucher, if there’s nothing to rent, that’s a problem,” said Catherine Payne, former high school principal and chairwoman of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission. “One fix is not going to do it. Ask the teachers, ‘what’s going to keep them?’”

Other bills address underserved and disadvantaged students.

The HSTA, for instance, is pushing for a legislative-backed study to more closely examine whether Hawaii’s smaller rural schools are funded equitably in the DOE.

“We’ve been trying for three years to look at the impact of WSF (weighted student formula) on rural schools,” said Rosenlee.

HB 2260 defines such schools as located at least an hour’s drive away from the nearest public high school; those schools on Lanai, Molokai or Niihau; or an elementary school that enrolls less than 200 students or a secondary school that enrolls less than 400 students.

Sen. Michelle Kidani, the Senate education chairwoman, also introduced a bill to fund after-school programming in remote areas.

During a recent information briefing with DOE administrators, she questioned how the school district could ramp up its efforts to offer “some program to keep (kids) occupied and off the street.”

SB 2083 proposes to establish after-school program funding at Kalanianaole Elementary and Intermediate School in Papaikou on Big Island, Kapaa Middle School on Kauai, Konawaena Middle School on Big Island and Waimea Canyon Middle School on Kauai.

As for boosting the quality of special education services in Hawaii, HSTA is pushing for a bill, SB 2521, that would give $1,690 to special education teachers for classroom support and instruction materials.

“Our (special education) teachers – we know they’re so underserved,” said Rosenlee. “There’s no way they can do (what they do) with the resources they have.”

The state struggles to find highly qualified instructors in special education classrooms — up to as many as 14 percent of special education teachers in Hawaii are not trained in this area.

DOE Superintendent Dr Christina Kishimoto during joint house/senate education committee hearing at the Capitol.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during a joint House and Senate education committee hearing at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During several legislative information sessions last week, lawmakers signaled that DOE’s budget will get close scrutiny. They grilled DOE officials — now under the charge of new schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto — on how the department spends money.

“We’re not going to get more money unless we’re really clear on how we’re spending that money,” said Payne, the chairwoman of the state Public Charter Schools Commission.

“It’s just an opportunity as a new administration coming in to be very transparent about all that we receive.”

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