Some candidates running in this year’s legislative races have a lot of ideas on how to improve public education in Hawaii.

They support, among other things, more vocational training and place-based curriculum, free college for local graduates who commit to teaching in Hawaii a certain number of years and a move away from a top-heavy education system to one that hands more control to local school leaders.

But their challenge will be how to leverage fresh ideas against a shrinking state budget due to the coronavirus pandemic, education observers say.

Avoiding teacher pay cuts or furloughs will be among the big issues facing the Legislature in 2021. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“The amalgamation of the virus and the economy with funding are going to be preeminent, and that means there’s probably not a lot of policy you could enact that would be separate from the financial and budgetary concerns,” said Jim Shon, a former lawmaker himself who is also the former director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center.

The main issues for Hawaii’s public schools in the coming year revolve around the ongoing health crisis: how to safely reopen schools, equip every child with adequate distance learning tools and spend federal dollars efficiently and equitably.

The state Department of Education, whose $2 billion operating budget is funded mostly through state general funds, is facing a $100 million reduction in appropriations for the current fiscal year, which started July 1.

The DOE’s net budget shortfall is projected to be $84 million this year, which includes nearly $65 million in COVID-19-related needs, including digital devices, distance learning platforms, personal protective equipment and unemployment insurance.

Teachers are already on edge from a tentative proposal by Gov. David Ige in April to dock state employee pay by 20%, although he later walked it back.

Avoiding teacher pay cuts is “the big issue right now” in front of the Legislature, said Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee.

“That’s going to be the big fight next year,” he said.

Other issues will loom large next session, including picking up from where the 2020 Legislature left off when it passed two key education measures: expanding access to public preschool and creating a new state facilities agency to oversee construction of school buildings.

Kids play in the Hawaii Childrens Discovery Center's day care area.
House Bill 2543 expanded eligibility for the Preschool Open Doors program to both 3- and 4-year-olds. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We passed a monumental, forward-looking piece around preschool. Now how are we actually going to implement it?” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network.

But the interesting thing to follow next session will be the intersection of funding and education, said David Miyashiro, executive director of local education advocacy group, HawaiiKidsCAN. The hard-to-staff teacher pay increases that were approved by the Board of Education last year is an example of a strategic conversation education and policy officials need to have, he said.

“That was maybe what was missing going into this (past) session: what are the compromises that can be made to really double down on (the increases)?” he said. “Even if it was rolled out in a messy way, it’s the kind of targeted funding conversation we need to have.”

When it comes to this year’s candidates, Miyashiro said he will be looking for “who’s really providing a more thoughtful, nuanced approach.”

New Faces, New Ideas?

There is a diverse roster of candidates running in the Aug. 8 primary who have embraced education as a platform and won key endorsements from groups like Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks! and HSTA. They include public school teachers, lawyers, community advocates, business owners and activists.

“All the folks we endorsed were strong on child and family issues across the board and in a more holistic way,” said Zysman. “People who had thoughtful ideas around, hey, we should have universal preschool, how will we finance that, how will we fund that? People who had more depth on implementing things.”

HCAN Speaks! 2020 endorsements include incumbents like Sen. Stanley Chang and Rep. Amy Perruso but also a slate of up-and-coming candidates like Jeanne Kapela, Adrian Tam, Ernesto “Sonny” Ganaden and Kim Coco Iwamoto, many of whom are running for office for the first or second time.

Vote You Run 808 large sign. King Street.
Primary election day is Aug. 8 but with this year’s vote-by-mail process election officials say you need to mail your ballot by Aug. 3 in order to make sure it’s received in time. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The HSTA’s recommendations include incumbents and newer faces alike, including those currently in House and Senate leadership roles, but also names like Kaui Pratt-Aquino, Matt LoPresti, Vickie Parker Kam and Micah Pregitzer. Kam and Pregitzer are public school teachers.

“There’s a big difference between being pro-education and being willing to go out and fight for it,” said Rosenlee.

As for candidates’ ideas, one main theme is finding new revenue sources for public education.

Kapela, 25, is a second-time Democratic candidate for the District 5 seat on Big Island that covers Naalehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona. It’s an open seat this election with Rep. Richard Creagan not seeking re-election.

She wants to boost funding for public education by $500 million by increasing taxes on Hawaii’s wealthiest residents, taxing recreational cannabis or imposing a property tax on residential properties worth $1 million or more.

Kapela, a 2012 graduate of Konawaena High School and former Miss Hawaii, said the public school system is out of reach for many rural kids simply because they live too far from the closest school with no reliable means of transportation.

“The reality is, education is not a thing a lot of people have access to,” she said. “We need to increase access by increasing funding for public education.”

Another big theme is tackling the state’s teacher shortage. Hawaii has historically relied on out-of-state educators to staff classrooms. That will be especially challenging with the pandemic as teachers are choosing to leave — not move to — the state.

Scott Grimmer, 33, a business owner and Democratic candidate for the open House District 51 seat in Kailua, wants to propose free tuition in the University of Hawaii system to any Hawaii high school graduate who’s willing to commit to teaching in the DOE for five years.

“Over time, this would save us a lot of money in recruitment,” he said.

The pandemic is shaping candidates’ views on education in other ways.

Some are emphasizing more skills-based training in schools so students are more equipped to enter the workforce with tangible skills.

Some candidates favor more vocational education. Here, Waianae High students work in a construction class. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

Michael Chapman, 24, the sole Democratic candidate for House District 45 that covers Mililani, a seat held by Republican Lauren Matsumoto since 2012, said in a recent HawaiiKidsCAN Action Fund survey, that several high school classmates found careers in culinary arts, carpentry, agriculture or auto shop because they received hands-on experience in high school.

The 2014 graduate of Leilehua High said Hawaii schools need to be more creative in the subjects they teach, emphasizing topics that will better prepare students for society, such as “civics, financial literacy, public speaking, emotional intelligence and other areas that concern practical knowledge.”

“One of my priorities has always been tying our education system to our economic planning,” he said.

The HawaiiKidsCAN Action Fund survey, which bores into education questions, received responses from nine Senate and 36 House candidates.

J. Kahala Chrupalyk, 42, an Aloha Aina Party candidate in House District 9, the Maui seat held by current House Lower and Higher Education Committee Chair Justin Woodson, said the DOE should put more effort into embracing students’ home languages.

“Employees automatically get higher pay rates when they know more than one language relevant to the region they live in,” she said in the survey. “Ilocano, Tagalog, Majolese, Palauan, Spanish, etc. would all be great places to start.”

Keeping An Eye On Spending

As the pandemic forces Hawaii to move more toward the direction of distance learning, it will be increasingly important to keep an eye on DOE spending, said Kam, 59, a teacher at Ilima Intermediate running in House District 42, which covers Kapolei and Makakilo, a seat currently held by Rep. Sharon Har.

Kam, a 17-year veteran teacher, said she supports less emphasis on excessive standardized testing and more transparency from DOE on how it awards lucrative contracts for outside curricula.

Some candidates want the state to rely less on standardized testing. Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

She said those scripted programs are “quite expensive” and that DOE gets locked into lengthy contract terms.

COVID-19 “is going to change schooling,” she said. “I do believe the Legislature will have to be more active in looking at how the restructuring (of schools) will be because it impacts other parts of our society, it doesn’t stand alone.”

Iwamoto, 52, a former elected member of the Board of Education who is running against House Speaker Scott Saiki in House District 26, said she supports expanding paid sick leave and paid family leave policies, “to get us through this pandemic.”

“Decades of the Hawaii Legislature underfunding our public education system has led to the current teacher shortage, forced teachers to work more than one job to make ends meet, and now we cannot reopen schools without relying on more than 1,000 substitute teachers — who do not get paid sick days,” she said.

She added that rebooting the local economy will require more federal dollars.

The DOE received $43 million in federal CARES Act money, some of which it has used for summer learning programs and digital devices.

Shon said it will be important for lawmakers to keep tabs on how the DOE is using those funds.

“They have to get a lot of federal money out the door before the end of the year, so there will be a lot of attention on how well we implement the money we got from the feds,” he said.

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