Editor’s Note:Perry Arrasmith’s entry in our Emerging Writers Contest earned an honorable mention — and $50.
Before Hawaii’s Supreme Court voted to strike down a ballot question on a proposed constitutional amendment on education funding in October, I was already struck by its possible implications and what they would mean for Hawaii’s schools.
I was in the sixth grade when Gov. Linda Lingle declared “Furlough Fridays” throughout the state of Hawaii. For students, the idea of 17 days without school came as a godsend. With our governor’s seemingly benevolent pronouncement, I had more time with my Legos and my brother had more time with his GameCube and skateboard. We couldn’t realize how teachers like our mom were struggling with a cut in financial resources, nor how we were losing out on an education meant to prepare us for the challenges of the twenty-first century.
However, the Legislature’s vision for new sources of revenue, as envisioned by Senate Bill 2922, offered a potential solution to our state’s long-standing public education problem: a lack of support.
Having grown up in schools where outdated textbooks were falling apart, globes displayed the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and lights were kept off to fight the heat, I saw this potential amendment as a ready way to finance our schools. As I recalled those teachers who sacrificed portions of their salaries so students like me might have opportunities to attend college, I wanted to believe the amendment would offer our education system more resources.
Based on my childhood recollections, I carefully pondered the ballot question, “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”
A Natural Defeat?
From a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I began contacting people back home to gauge their opinions. A number of teachers supported the proposed measure as the prospect of a better-funded education system was enough to make them enthusiastic supporters.
Meanwhile, those opposing it were skeptical. Would these new state taxes allow the Legislature to divert old sources of revenue previously reserved for education to new projects? How would the law affect property owners, especially those already struggling to make ends meet in Hawaii? Would the law hurt the counties? What would they do about this loss of revenue? A certain fog — a demand for answers to such questions — even made me skeptical about the ballot question.
Hawaii’s Supreme Court was also asking questions. The Hawaii Revised Statutes hold that any amendment to the state constitution should be “clear” and “neither misleading nor deceptive.” On these grounds, the court readily struck down the ballot question.
However, I had already voted yes on my absentee ballot before the news broke. With the declaration, those thousands who had already cast votes saw their mark of deliberation rendered symbolic.
The state Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments over the validity of the ballot question concerned the public’s ability to comprehend the question. The counties, led by Donna Leong, corporation counsel for the City and County of Honolulu, maintained an argument holding that wording of the ballot was unclear and that the public therefore lacked the necessary information to understand its full implications.
Beyond these arguments, I understand why the counties opposed the potential loss of this revenue source. With the City and County of Honolulu alone facing the burden of financing a new rail system whose pillars silently stare at those living throughout Western and Central Oahu, the need for more detail was certainly valid.
In reflecting on Leong’s arguments and the Supreme Court’s conclusions, my attention focused on a larger issue continually underlying our state’s political health: our civic culture.
Looking Back To Move Forward
Measures like the now invalidated ballot question, while undeniably flawed, prescribed a solution to a problem everyone knows exists. In itself, the desire to propose a new mechanism for funding our state’s education system is symptomatic of larger institutional issues.
If smaller problems are any indication, Hawaii’s education system at-large is in need of dire reform. For instance, it should be well-known that a public teacher’s salary is already low by national standards when factored into the state’s cost of living. Earlier this year, Hawaii News Now even reported that the Hawaii was the worst for teachers in the nation.
An exodus of our teachers to the mainland means that our students are losing quality educators, while said-educators miss the opportunity to foster Hawaii’s rising generations. In the 21st century, how can our state be competitive when its students lack access to the best resources available?
I would like to see more public school kids from Hawaii at schools like Harvard. For that matter, I would like to see my classmates enjoy greater opportunity to develop themselves into future citizens trained to adequately face the issues our state stands to reckon with during the next few decades. This ethic must begin with us seeing education as a long-term investment without an immediate return, but one they can trust with good faith because of its strong foundation.
Our skepticism about government will not solve these issues, nor will our suspicions about those legislators we elect every two to four years. Solutions to this crisis will only be borne out of a commitment to dialogue and deliberation. As elections come around, local publications like Civil Beat continue to investigate Hawaii’s civic apathy. In the last decade, national news agencies like CNN have done the same.
Others, meanwhile, profess little faith in our Legislature. Hawaii has continued to elect members of the Democratic Party to office, but the diversity of ideas and backgrounds among those legislators with this affiliation should indicate that debate still transpires within that body. If one does not have faith in the actions of the Legislature, then why do we even trust these elected representatives in the first place? For Oahu residents like me, these lawmakers are the neighbors one sees in the morning traffic into town or at the football game at Aloha Stadium.
I have thought over these words from my dorm on the Charles River in Cambridge, but my simplest hope is that they connect me back to a home I often miss. Writing from Harvard, I cannot forget where I came from. I cannot forget Kaneohe Elementary, Pearlridge Elementary, Aiea Intermediate, or Aiea High.
At the same time, I confess to wondering what a future in Hawaii looks like for young people like me, especially with a rising cost of living and general isolation.
Those schools, teachers, students, and their strengths and faults were the sources of many lessons I learned about life and its inequalities. I am proud to have come from public schools, but pride cannot negate the need for introspection. When grappling with the possibilities of a constitutional amendment, our state must do the same.
It might not have been the answer, but the discourse offered by such proposals should generate a debate over the state’s larger systemic problems. If Hawaii intends to succeed in the 21st century, it must first dare to envision suitable, intelligent, and no-nonsense possibilities for those destined to one day lead it.
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Perry Arrasmith is a proud graduate of Aiea High School and is currently an undergraduate at Harvard College, where he studies History with a minor in Government. When he is home, he enjoys hiking, reading, and spending time with family.