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Several teachers are running for the Legislature in Hawaii this year, propelled by their desire to see increased funding for schools and a greater focus on education issues in the state.
Four full-time public school teachers from around the state are vying for open House seats in the Aug. 11 primary.
While not a huge number, it’s a higher number of teacher candidates than in recent years, said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
“I think this is definitely an extraordinary year to see how many teachers are getting involved in the political process,” he said.
The spike in teacher candidates this year mirrors on a small scale what’s taking place around the country: frustrations over low pay, overcrowded classrooms and state budget cuts to education have led record numbers of teachers to run for local and state seats following a spate of teacher strikes in places like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
In Oklahoma, at least 100 teachers ran for office in the primary last month, with dozens advancing from those races.
In Hawaii, the dominant concerns in education include low teacher pay and not enough funding for classroom supplies and equipment.
One of the things that will be most closely watched in the November general election is a ballot measure asking voters to approve a surcharge on residential investment properties to fund public education.
“The four of us I think are pretty explicitly running on an agenda to serve the community but we also recognize that schools are the heart of our community,” said Amy Perruso, a Mililani High School social studies teacher of 15 years, who’s running for the open District 46 House seat in Wahiawa.
Other teachers running for a House seat include Micah Pregitzer, a science teacher at Kalaheo High for the District 50 House seat in Kailua/Kaneohe Bay; Justin Hughey, a third-grade special education teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary for District 8 on Maui; and Raina Whiting, a kindergarten teacher at Naalehu Elementary School and candidate for the District 3 House seat on Big Island.
Whiting and Hughey have run for office here before while Perruso and Pregitzer are first-time candidates.
Pregitzer, who’s worked as a teacher here for 14 years, said he decided at the beginning of the year to run for a seat.
“Education has not been a top priority in Hawaii (by the Legislature) for the last couple of decades, at least while I’ve been in teaching,” he said.
Each year, he said, he holds out hope for “basic funding to get new supplies, new equipment, so we’re not using textbooks that are decades-old and equipment that is hobbled together to keep working.”
Hughey, 42, who’s worked as a teacher on Maui since 2005, said Hawaii needs more lawmakers with educational experience.
“We still need people who actually understand the public education from a hands-on perspective to really improve our public education system,” he said. “And I just don’t think it’s (going to) happen until we have educational experts that have been in the classroom.”
The Legislature doesn’t include many former teachers. But the few that do have prior public school teaching experience point to their previous career as a powerful driver for jumping into politics.
Rep. Takashi Ohno, whose District 27 seat covers Nuuanu, Liliha and Alewa Heights, was elected in 2012 after spending three years as a third-grade teacher at Fern Elementary in Kalihi. His teaching experience coincided with “Furlough Friday,” a cost-cutting measure in 2009 that closed public schools in Hawaii for 17 Fridays.
“It was a year where we had the unfortunate designation of having the shortest school year,” Ohno recalled. “It meant fewer days to teach. It meant more concepts that had to be covered in a short amount of time. Because of all that, I wanted to have a seat at the table to help discuss these issues and make sure it didn’t happen again.”
Rep. Ken Ito, of House District 49, spent nearly two decades in the classroom. He taught vocational education at Kalani High before jumping into state politics in the mid-1990s.
“The Legislature is money. You deal with the allocation of money. Every dollar has to be justified,” he said.
The teacher-candidates this year know running for a seat comes with some risk: they can’t work for two state agencies at the same time, so they must resign from the state Department of Education or take leave if they prevail in their elections. Should they choose to ever re-enter the teaching profession here, they could lose seniority status or be back on probationary status.
Perruso, 49, said she decided to run for her seat last October. In preparation, she decided not to teach Advanced Placement classes this past school year, knowing she couldn’t devote the proper amount of time to grading papers over the weekends when gearing up for her candidacy.
The former secretary-treasurer of HSTA said she’s been disappointed with the level of legislative pushback against certain education proposals, such as what she considers over-testing in the schools.
“This is the first time that teachers are seeing (elections) as a way to take back the conversation,” she said. “We’ve let politicians make too many decisions and we really feel the only way to reclaim our schools is to make sure the people who are making public policy around schools have an education background, at least some of them.”
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