The oft used sentiments that our children are our future and that we have to invest in our keiki too often ring hollow in Hawaii. Hawaii ranks last in the nation in 3- and 4-year-olds attending prekindergarten, last in the nation in the percentage of our taxation that goes to our public schools, last in the nation in students’ participation in free breakfast at our public schools.

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In 2020 only 38% of Hawaii’s economically disadvantaged students enrolled in college after high school and that number drops to 35% of our native Hawaiian population and 29% for Pacific Islanders. Hawaii must renew its commitment to take care of our keiki.

Taking care of our keiki must begin from birth. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide family leave. When I was president of the Hawai’i State Teachers Association, I worked with the family leave coalition to advocate for providing 16 weeks of paid family leave to workers using a social insurance model, through which a worker earning approximately $48,000 annually would pay just over $1 per week for vital financial security. It is long past time for Hawaii to enact a family leave law.

For economically struggling families in Hawaii, child care can be the second-highest expense after housing, coming out to 20% of household income. These families, which often depend on two or more incomes, instead choose poor quality child care and studies show that poor child care has long term negative impacts on students.

Instead Hawaii needs to cap child care at 7% of household income to allow families to afford high quality child care.

There is much to be done to show commitment to public education in Hawaii. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2022

Research shows how beneficial preschool is for our keiki. There are three barriers to expanding preschool in Hawaii: cost, space and teachers. It was recently estimated that constructing enough preschool space to meet demand in Hawaii would require $2 billion dollars. In 2014, however, our state ended the junior kindergarten program, which enrolled approximately 5,000 students.

In the 2020-2021 school year, Hawaii currently had 159,503 students enrolled in DOE schools, compared to 175,476 in 2013-2014. Where have all those classrooms gone?

When we compare classroom space to teacher workforce data, we find that there are roughly 600 elementary school classrooms that may be currently available for preschool expansion, with only 400 classrooms being needed to meet demand. Though some classrooms and bathrooms would need to be modified for preschool purposes, doing so would cost far less than the $2 billion that the Legislature has projected.

Moreover, there are currently over 500 public school teachers who are licensed in early education. The inevitable question is: If we reassign these teachers to preschool classrooms, won’t our current teacher shortage be worsened? The teacher shortage is not evenly spread out across the state. Some areas have a surplus of elementary school teachers (i.e., urban Honolulu and Hilo). We can build on pay differentials I was successful at funding as HSTA president to mitigate shortages in other, more hard to staff areas.

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide family leave.

To fully fund education, we must tackle the problem from a variety of angles. I am proud of the work I did to establish pay differentials for teachers who teach special education, Hawaiian immersion, and hard-to-staff areas, as well as of my advocacy to resolve the longstanding issue of teacher salary compression. In the future, I will support increasing teacher pay by allowing teachers to move up the pay scale faster, rewarding educational attainment, and protecting teacher pay and school budgets from the impact of recessions. I also support increasing substitute teacher pay in order to fill the huge shortage we have in substitutes.

Furthermore, the second-largest expense for education in the state is school facilities. On average, Hawaii’s schools are over 60 years old. A 2019 DOE report stated that our schools need $11 billion to resolve all outstanding facilities concerns. We currently have no real plan to deal with our schools’ antiquated and deteriorating infrastructure. I believe that when the .5% general excise tax surcharge for rail expires in 2030, it should be redirected to repairing and replacing Hawaii’s public school infrastructure.

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Hawaii must also change its focus when it comes to education. There are many good-paying, high-demand jobs that do not require a 4-year college degree. Unfortunately, our schools are not designed to help interested students obtain these jobs. Instead, our school system has a “college or bust” mentality. I will advocate for Hawaii to follow the Massachusetts model of vocational education by allowing high school students to take up to 50% of their credits in career and technical education.

In order to allow this transition to occur, we will need approximately 500 new career and technical education teachers. I am proposing that we achieve this by offering sabbaticals to current teachers who want to become qualified to teach CTE courses, give them a year’s salary as they become qualified to teach CTE, and then hire them as CTE specialists once they have completed their programs. We should also allow schools to create an inclusion model for career and technical education programs, in which a CTE specialist and an education specialist co-teach vocational education courses to maximize their industrial and academic benefit.

I also believe we must continue the federal policy started during Covid-19 to give all students free breakfast and lunch, and to expand the policy of breakfast after the bell, where students are given breakfast after class has begun so that no child goes hungry in Hawaii.

I also believe there isn’t good research on best practices across the state. Therefore I support research on teacher workload and streamlining paperwork, class size and special education inclusion practices across the state.

I support joining the eight other states who have made college tuition-free. As a social studies teacher at Campbell High School, I have seen how college tuition is a barrier to higher education admission for low-income students. Each year, I ask my classes (which are primarily composed of seniors) if they plan on going to college. About half of my students raise their hands. Then I ask how many would go if college was free. Almost all of my students raise their hands. Every student who wants to attend college should have the opportunity to do so, regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status.

Taking care of our keiki from birth all the way through college should be our priority.

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