Danny De Gracia: During The Pandemic, School Vouchers Make Sense - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Some locals welcome students returning to public school in Hawaii as a relief, as it gives parents flexibility to work. But with COVID-19 cases steadily increasing, other parents are concerned about the safety of their children and the potential for them to bring home the delta variant to multigenerational households.

Last week, there was a statewide positivity rate of 4.4% and a daily average of 161 cases. In many ways, the danger to be faced by students in August is still very much the same as it was in Hawaii’s summer surge last year, because cases are again rising and the vaccine is only available to those 12 and older.

While government officials have frequently invoked terms like “best practices” or “science-based” to put a stamp of safety on the return of in-person instruction, this entire process still reeks of politics driving education.

As we have seen throughout the entire pandemic, what is considered safe has been a moving target, and when government gets things wrong, people get sick or die. It would be academic hubris to take one country’s study on vaccines and consider that to be the end-all.

People assume that because mRNA vaccines have been shown to be mostly effective against alpha and delta strains in limited studies in the UK, that this somehow crosswalks to everyone, everywhere seeing similar effectiveness, but that simplifies the science too much.

Parents who think their children – and indeed, their entire household – would be safer with distance learning until things cool down are completely justified in taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the continuing pandemic.

The problem is, not every public school student will have distance learning options available, and in lieu of that, not all parents can afford to send their children to a private school with distance learning either.

The law requires children to go to the public school in their geographic areas, pandemic or not, and Hawaii isn’t exactly a state known for parental rights or school choice. Yes, like every other government policy in the Aloha State, it is possible to request an exemption, but exemptions put people at the mercy of bureaucrats.

Why We Should Consider A Voucher System

In Hawaii, public education is a mess. The solution to every single problem faced by the Department of Education even prior to the pandemic was simply to throw more money at it or demand more money from taxpayers.

Public education has been called a monopoly, and in Hawaii, education is a monopoly of chaos that pits parents and their children against politicians and powerful unions. It is precisely for times like these, when parents don’t like COVID-19 pandemic conditions or trust public assurances of safety for school children, that giving parents more educational choice would make all the difference in Hawaii.

One of the proposals that has been pitched for years is what is called a voucher system, where parents can opt out of public education and receive a subsidy roughly equivalent to what it costs to send their child to a public school, and that could be used to attend a private school of their choice. The theory is that this would force competition for money among schools to provide the best possible facilities and educational programs.

Holomua Elementary School students line up after recess.
Parents, not government officials, should have the power to decide where they think their children will be safe. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

If Hawaii had a voucher system, parents who didn’t like the safety arrangements at the public school their children would normally attend could send them to a private school that had an all-distance option. If the voucher didn’t cover the full cost, they could pay the rest out-of-pocket. Public schools would either have to aggressively improve their services, or they’d lose out to private schools that had better safety and educational services.

In the past, I have resisted the idea of vouchers, not because I oppose parental choice, but because I have worried about the potential of cartelization where private schools would be able to drive up prices, as has happened at private colleges over recent decades.

However, if the upcoming session of the Legislature were to propose an amendment to Article X of the state constitution to create a brief voucher pilot project just to cover the COVID-19 pandemic for, say, the next four years, this might provide a way for parents to get their children through school without worrying about infections. And if the system didn’t work, an automatic sunset date on the pilot project could shut it down before it got out of hand.

This is clearly a controversial idea, but during this ongoing pandemic, if the law still demands that parents send their children to school, they should have the right to send them someplace where they feel their keiki would be most comfortable and safe. To be entirely at the mercy of the public school system in a pandemic is more unreasonable than the government creating vouchers.

This is one of those areas where I, as someone who has worked at the Legislature in years past, can tell you that policymakers might say behind the scenes, “The DOE will hate it. Public school teachers will hate it. Unions will hate it.”

And that is probably true. But when it comes to your children, who you love, the real question is, should bureaucrats make the call on their safety, or should you?

Read this next:

The Choice For Workers At A Honolulu Care Facility — Get Vaccinated Or Get Fired

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

I've always supported the voucher system because if you are not utilizing the public system by sending your kids there, why should you have to pay for it?  One of the issues with that thinking is that there are many childless households that should then be given credits as well because about one third of their tax dollar goes to public education.  As Danny points out public education has many challenges, but that is a whole different topic.  What should be considered though is some kind of tax credit for those families carrying thousands of dollars a year in private tuition because it is fair to say, if there child where not in private, they would be using public facilities.  The pandemic fear brings a different element to this argument because the schools are there, but for whatever reason if you don't want to send your child then it's more of an opt out choice.  There are parents that home school and there are materials and testing protocols that go with that.  It is an option already.  I see it that choice differently than deciding to elevate the learning experience for a child. 

wailani1961 · 11 months ago

I'm not sure whether this is the right place to ask, but I'll try anyway:  Civil Beat describes Mr. De Gracia as a political scientist and an ordained minister.  In the interests of transparency, could Civil Beat inform us what political science degrees he holds and what religion he is ordained in?

Democracy101 · 11 months ago

Mr. De Gracia's assertion that parents could send their child to the private school of their choice is incorrect.  What he means is parents could send their child to the private school that chooses to accept them based on academic and behavioral qualifications and assumes that the voucher would cover the cost of going to said private school (both of which are questionable or just outright not possible depending on the institution and individual child's situation.)  

Bucknasty · 11 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.



You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.