About the Author

Corey Rosenlee

Corey Rosenlee is a teacher a James Campbell High School and a former president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

In a recent Civil Beat commentary, Danny de Gracia called Hawaii public schools a “mess,” disdained how policymakers “throw more money” at public schools, and said that the answer to our state’s educational problems is the enactment of a voucher system that gives parents a subsidy to send their children to the private school of their choice.

Nothing could be further from the truth. A voucher system would only exacerbate the growing schism between rich and poor families in the islands.

The first issue in de Gracia’s plan is how much each student’s voucher should be worth. At first glance, the general fund allocation for fiscal year 2021 for Hawaii’s public schools was $1.67 billion for approximately 174,000 students, just short of $10,000 per student. Of that $1.67 billion, 23% was spent on special education and 9% on food services, busing and utilities. Additional funding was made available for adult school and prekindergarten programming.

If we look at the amount allocated for school-based budgeting, the spending figure for classroom support falls to a billion dollars per year, or $5,747 per student. Compare that with our state’s elite private institutions. Punahou’s tuition is $27,000 annually, while Iolani’s tuition is close to $26,000 per year. Some small parochial schools charge less in tuition, but that begs the question of using public funding to pay for religious programs.

Holomua Elementary School students lineup and head back to their classrooms after recess.
Holomua Elementary School students lined up and headed back to their classrooms after recess earlier this month. Hawaii’s public schools continue to suffer from aging facilities, bloated class sizes and a chronic teacher shortage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Over 50% of our public school students come from low-income families. They can’t afford to enroll at Punahou, Iolani, Mid-Pac, Maryknoll or other private schools on $5,747 per year. Therefore, the students who will most benefit from vouchers are those from wealthy families who can make up the tuition difference and who likely can already afford private school tuition.

We Are Not Sweden

A voucher program will only amount to subsidizing these students’ private education. They will vacate our public education system, leaving high-needs and high-poverty children remaining, and with fewer resources to devote to uplifting their learning growth. At the end of the day, this will significantly worsen the already immense equity gap in our public schools.

International comparisons between nations with and without school-choice programs reveal the problem with implementing voucher programs to promote achievement for our most vulnerable keiki. Finland created an education system based on equity, with well-funded and equally resourced schools. Private schools were mostly eliminated in the country.

A voucher program will only amount to subsidizing these students’ private education.

Sweden, on the other hand, tried instituting a voucher model, allowing parents to choose what school to send their children to. Finland is touted as one of the best school systems in the world, while Sweden has struggled on international assessments.

Why? Because teachers at Swedish private schools inflated grades and focused on standardized testing to make their schools more competitive and attractive to prospective families. Finland went a different route, establishing a world-class school system based on equity and educator empowerment.

When de Gracia suggests that we should stop throwing money at our educational problems, he evidently has not visited public school campuses, which are suffering from aging facilities, bloated class sizes and a chronic teacher shortage.

Instead of investing in failed solutions, like school vouchers, we should fund our public schools as well as their private alternatives, so that every classroom has the resources needed to help our keiki reach their highest potential.

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About the Author

Corey Rosenlee

Corey Rosenlee is a teacher a James Campbell High School and a former president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Latest Comments (0)

'Vouchers' need not be spent only on private schools, public ones as well could be funded via all-vouchers! Our public schools' poor results (lowest ACT scores in the nation, 40% remedial class in junior colleges, military enlistees' also lowest scores in nationwide standard tests, DOE evasion of testing altogether, non-reading, math-illiterate cohorts persisting in later grades) are rooted in lack of accountability.  Vouchers need not be priced to exclude bus, cafeteria and physical plant, either. Vouchers would introduce some accountability in a system where there isn't any--wouldn't be needed if local school control was actual.  But that won't happen, just look at the farce of DOE-insider handling of school-community oversight:  no-notice elections and principals' veto.  The overwhelmingly self-serving non-accountable culture of DOE schools combined with vast HSTA legislative influence means voucher-advocacy looks like the only reasonable option. 

Haleiwa_Dad · 2 years ago

Mahalo for presenting a counterargument to diverting public school money to a voucher system to fund private schools.  The purpose of a public education system is to offer a decent education to all the state's children.  The wealthy turn their backs on supporting that system by enrolling their children in elite private schools.  They may support the idea of equity in public education, but in practice they want their own children to get the best education they can afford.  Why would we want to encourage that practice and thus increase the inequity?   Instead of talking about vouchers, parents should be pushing to break up the stagnant bureaucracy of centralized state control, where too little public money goes to the classroom and too much goes to ineffective state management.  Teachers need to be paid more, county and school district control need to be implemented, and all parents need to become more active in improving the quality of their children's education, instead of putting all the responsibility on teachers and administrators.  

Bett · 2 years ago

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