Households earning less than $50,000 annually that have a student enrolled in public school grades K-12 would be eligible to receive $1,000 in direct payments to use for education expenses under a proposal moving through the Hawaii Legislature that attempts to offset some of the costs of pandemic-related learning needs.

House Bill 1834, which cleared the Finance committee on Friday, proposes a one-year pilot program to dole out $1,000 one-time grants to qualifying households, prioritizing lower earning families. The money could be used for expenses such as laptops, education software or therapies.

A companion Senate bill, SB 2816, is set for a vote in the Ways and Means committee Wednesday morning.

The House measure seeks a $5 million appropriation from the state’s general fund to get the program started with an initial pool of 5,000 public school students. The program would be overseen by the Hawaii Department of Education, which would set up the grant application process.

The proposal is loosely based on a program that began on Lanai island last school year launched by the education advocacy nonprofit HawaiiKidsCAN. The program distributed roughly $11,000 in donated funds from outside groups to families to supplement their children’s learning needs with tutoring or software purchases.

Lanai High and Elementary School students walk to classes in the morning before the starting bell rings.
Some lawmakers support the direct grant program, particularly in more remote or rural areas such as Lanai where learning costs can accumulate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

David Miyashiro, HawaiiKidsCAN’s executive director, says this concept would use state funds to assist parents who have made extra financial investments toward their children’s learning since the pandemic hit.

“Parents are looking for any help they can get,” Miyashiro said. “It’s not uncommon for parents to chip in and pay for things. We feel this could fill some of those pukas.”

“This is taking some work off the plate of schools,” he added.

The pandemic’s disruption of traditional in-person instruction exposed the disparities in access to education. Challenges many students face include a lack of a digital device to participate in remote learning or unreliable internet connectivity at home, prompting efforts to launch a mobile “wifi on wheels” program in rural Hawaii communities.

Though most students are back in regular school settings this year, some education advocates say parents continue to face additional expenses to help their kids catch up from learning loss due to the pandemic, including curriculum or software costs, fees related to standardized tests or Advancement Placement exams, or costs for behavioral or occupational therapies.

Some states around the U.S. distributed grants to low-income families during the pandemic to help with education expenses, including Oklahoma.

Idaho’s governor on Tuesday signed a bill that directs $50 million in federal Covid aid to distribute grants of up to $1,000 per student or $3,000 per family to be spent on supplemental educational learning needs like computers, internet and tutoring.

In 2020, HawaiiKidsCAN petitioned Gov. David Ige to dedicate federal funds known as the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund for such a purpose.

But the petition fetched less than 400 signatures. Instead of taking up the proposal, Ige routed most of the $10 million directly to Hawaii schools and colleges in the form of “innovation grants” ranging from $100,000 to $450,000. The money will be used for projects such as STEM education, after-school arts programming or leadership development.

The Hawaii DOE spent $31 million to purchase laptops and wifi devices in the first round of pandemic relief aid in 2020. It is focusing its latest round of $412 million in relief aid received through the American Rescue Plan Act on social and emotional supports such as nurses and counselors, summer school and coaching for teachers.

In written testimony for HB 1834, DOE said eligible expenses are already covered by federal Covid aid to schools and questioned the total cost of expanding this reach to potentially every low-income student in Hawaii.

It projected a total cost of $79 million, based on the rough number of kids in the DOE who are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

But Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN said the proposal can start as a much smaller pilot and be scaled up depending on need and families’ interest level. There would be an application process and grants would be administered by DOE or a third party.

“We didn’t want to make an ask that would be a significant financial commitment for the state, given that at this particular moment, (it’s more important to establish) the model,” he said.

The House bill was introduced in the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness committee and has cleared the education and finance committees. The Senate bill cleared the education committee and will be up for a vote in the Ways and Means committee on Wednesday.

Lawmakers who support the measure said the DOE should consider new ideas when it comes to supporting families who are shelling out more to help with their kids’ education expenses since the pandemic.

“We just give more money to the DOE and we hope they will do more things,” said state Rep. Troy Hashimoto, the Maui legislator who introduced the House bill.

“It forces the DOE to think a little differently,” he said.

State Rep. Amy Perruso, who voted against the measure in the House Finance committee, is concerned about the implications of outsourcing the task of administering funds and how the use of such funds would be monitored.

“It’s really dangerous ground because we would be forsaking oversight and regulation of those funds,” she said. “We are opening up a Pandora’s Box. You could legitimately address these needs through the Department of Education.”

Miyashiro emphasized this is not a voucher system in which families are given state money to spend toward private tuition.

“A voucher is using public funds to pay for private tuition, and this would not be part of the program,” he said. “You can’t use it for tuition at Punahou (School). That wouldn’t be allowed.”

He added that the use of funds could be monitored through a platform that lists pre-approved education vendors so the money is not spent on any inappropriate or irrelevant, non-educational purpose.

The program on Lanai counts 140 participants. Some families have created small collaborative learning groups for their kids known as “microschools” by pooling their grants together and purchasing education software through an online vendor called ClassWallet.

The $11,000 in funding for that program comes from donations by Pulama Lanai, Atherton Family Foundation and The Reinvention Lab at Teach for America.

“The idea for pods is to empower our parents to take charge of their (kids’) learning,” said Lisa Chin, an organizer of the program. “(They can) meet together and talk about goals and needs for their kids academically.”

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