If you want to see inequality, look no further than school pick-up hour. Compare neighbors: Ala Wai Elementary School with Iolani; Roosevelt High School with Punahou. And if you want a shock, stand between Central Middle School and St. Andrew’s on Queen Emma Street.

At the private schools, you’ll see luxury cars: Lexus, BMW, Tesla. At their public peers, you’ll occasionally see dented cars held together with zip ties and duct tape. Actually, at the less affluent schools, you’ll see most students leave on foot: walking home, catching the bus, wandering into the afternoon.

Educational opportunity has never been equal. When missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they established private schools, like Oahu College (now Punahou). Royal Elementary School, which I attended, was once a boarding school for the children of Hawaiian royalty. And less than a hundred years ago, the best public schools were reserved for those who could speak English fluently.

We have progressed in many ways. The public school system serves more people than ever before. Students attend longer and graduate. And women now outperform men at almost all levels of education. However, access to education is not the same as access to quality education.

If we are serious about ensuring equal opportunity, we must ensure that educational quality is equal. This requires more than expanding public education to include preschool. It requires more than better teacher pay. It will require us to address the greatest challenge to achieving educational equality: class segregation.

Private schools on Oahu like Punahou offer opportunities that are rare to nonexistent in Hawaii’s public school system.

So long as the rich and poor attend separate schools, the divide between classes will grow. The concentration of wealth and power in a few private schools is the greatest barrier to addressing inequality.

Public schools are one of the last remaining places where members of different classes can interact and develop mutual understanding and trust. This understanding and trust is the bedrock of a strong democracy. Without regular interaction between classes, the elites grow out of touch, inviting a populist backlash. This is the story of contemporary politics in many Western European countries and in the United States, and it could soon become the story of Hawaii.

Civilized Disparities

I have been fortunate to see many schools from the inside. When I worked in nonprofit education, I guest taught at public high schools, including Kaimuki, Farrington and Waianae. I also taught at Kamehameha, Punahou and Iolani.

The rumors are true. The facilities at private schools are nicer. The teachers seem less stressed. But the biggest difference is the culture and expectations.

At schools like Punahou and Iolani, the question isn’t whether students will attend college. The question is which college they will attend. In part, this is because some parents have the means to provide their children with every advantage: test preparation, private tutoring, expensive extracurriculars. But it’s also because achievement is normal and expected, even of students from less affluent backgrounds.

Public schools are often criticized for failing to create a culture of achievement. But this blames teachers and faculty for a demographic problem – the high-achieving elites have withdrawn from public institutions and safeguarded their children in private schools.

It’s dispiriting that many of our elected officials refuse to send their children to public school. But it’s not just our politicians. It’s also the professionals: lawyers, doctors and engineers who are willing to part with tens of thousands of dollars each year for the privilege of sending their children to private school.

Farrington High School

Farrington High School is a public school in Kalihi.

Lila Lee/Civil Beat

Of course, there is always a tension between what’s best for one’s own children and what’s best for the community. But in the case of public schools, the pooling of resources in a few elite institutions does harm to all.

Under the watch of our disconnected elites, Hawaii is becoming unlivable, even for their own children. The cost of living continues to rise. Our economy flounders for lack of education and infrastructure. And homelessness and crime have become normal.

Imagine if tomorrow the elite private schools disappeared.

All the students attending Punahou now have to attend their neighborhood schools. Their parents join the parent-teacher associations and exert positive pressure on school administrators and the Department of Education. Elected officials, forced to confront the public education system in the flesh, take interest and enact necessary reforms.

Of course, elite schools won’t disappear any time soon. Still, we can work harder to bridge the resource gap between private and public schools.

The PUEO Program at Punahou is an innovative program working to bridge the gap. Through the program, public school students use the facilities and resources of Punahou, taking summer school courses and receiving college counseling, among other services. The program now serves 350 students each year, and many go on to succeed in college.

The success of the PUEO Program is proof that if students are provided with proper resources, they can succeed. But the program’s success is also an indication the current divide between public and private schools is too large.

Ensuring adequate resources for public schools requires more than increasing funding or adding summer enrichment programs. The most powerful members of society need to have a stake in the success of public schools; they need skin in the game.

This isn’t a pipe dream. It’s a cultural shift that’s more than possible, but it will require the elites to make individual sacrifices for the collective good.

There’s no doubt: sending your child to Punahou or Iolani will likely set them up for success in college and their professional life. They’ll have access to unparalleled resources and an incredible network of alumni. But if elites continue to isolate themselves and ignore the needs of the masses, they will leave a poor state for their children after graduation.

Hawaii will become like Jamaica, with stark inequality between the gated communities of the wealthy and the slums of Kingston. Perhaps we are halfway there.

The glittering towers of the central business district cast long shadows on the homeless people below. And if you stand on Queen Emma Street in the afternoon, you can see it for yourself.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.