Campus and student safety, transportation, career paths for high schoolers and early education will be on the agendas of the legislative committees responsible for the policy and funding for Hawaii’s public education system in the 2023 session.

House Education Committee Chair Rep. Justin Woodson says he anticipates divergent priorities and dissenting opinions, but believes there will be consensus around the issue of preparedness for active shooter incidents in schools. 

“In this day and age, it is something that we most certainly cannot be complacent on. Learning is secondary to health and safety,” Woodson said. 

Supporters High Five Rep Justin Woodson Chair Lower Higher Education Committee.
House Education Committee Chair Justin Woodson says he supports a higher floor and a higher ceiling for teacher pay. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In a similar vein, Rep. Jeanne Kapela, vice chair of the Higher Education Committee, is working on a safety bill that addresses sexual violence and rape on college campuses. 

The two main components of the bill are trauma-informed training for staff who handle rape cases and claims, and ensuring amnesty for students who come forward. 

Another area likely to garner widespread support is the expansion of early learning, which Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke is spearheading. 

Luke said she plans to introduce a bill that would increase funding for Preschool Open Doors, the Department of Human Services program that helps low-income parents pay for private preschool. Currently the program only gives parents subsidies for 4-year-olds. Luke says her bill would open up funding for 3-year-olds as well. 

She also plans to introduce a bill dedicated to forging a career path for early educators. The workforce will need to double to meet projected demand. 

A bill intended to make it easier for out-of-state educators to teach in Hawaii is in the works from Woodson. He said that the majority of teaching applicants are from out of state and a proposed Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact would allow the Hawaii Department of Education to fill positions quicker. 

This year about 6% of positions are vacant, meaning the state needs to hire at least 737 teachers, including 147 special education teachers.

Hawaii State Teachers Association president Osa Tui Jr. said he would like to see as many of those positions as possible filled by Hawaii residents, which would likely require raising both the floor and the ceiling of teacher pay — a goal that has multiple legislators’ support. 

Expanding Career Pathways For Students

Students build a bench in a CTE construction class at Waianae High School. Only half of Hawaii public schools seniors enter college after graduation. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

A handful of legislators said that expanding career and technical education, or CTE, opportunities will be a priority going into session. House Education Committee member Rep. Scot Matayoshi is working on a bill to increase funding for CTE equipment so that students can get more hands-on experience with modern equipment — better preparing them to enter the workforce. 

Woodson said there is a lot of energy around the expansion of CTE, computer science and art, and that he hopes the legislature props it up. 

“We want to make sure that we support those efforts because we want to align current and future marketplace needs to curricula — that’s something that you find in high performing public school systems,” he said. 

Separately, House Higher Education Committee Chair Amy Perruso and Kapela, the vice chair, created a bill aimed at upping Hawaii’s college-going rate by making community college free to all Hawaii residents. 

Perruso wrote another bill meant to better prepare Hawaii’s graduates for adulthood by requiring the DOE to strengthen civic education. Hawaii was sixth from the bottom in voter turnout among states in the 2022 general elections and the bill says the department has not adequately trained teachers to meet social studies standards that would increase civic engagement. 

The bill would require the DOE to create two civic education resource teacher positions, one of which would be grant funded, to prepare students to participate in public and political life.  

Other bills in progress would change how the DOE feeds its students. Matayoshi wants to make school lunch — now $2.75 — free for all students. And Perruso is working out ways to give schools more autonomy in meal planning, to enable cafeterias to use more fresh, locally grown foods, including produce grown in campus ag programs.

David Sun-Miyashiro of HawaiiKidsCAN said that with an near $2 billion surplus and an influx of new faces, he hoped the Legislature would be less fiscally conservative toward education this year, and would allocate the funds necessary to recover learning loss and narrow gaps in academic achievement. 

“It’s a real opportunity for everybody to take bold action together and get to a place where all kids have great opportunities when they graduate from our schools,” he said. 

Getting Kids To School

In the last year, legislators from across the state heard from parents who were unable to get their kids to school after around 30 routes were dropped due to driver shortages. Kapela, whose district spans rural Big Island neighborhoods said bussing is the No. 1 reason parents call her.  

Rural districts, where students often live 15 miles or more from their school, continue to be most affected while many urban schools have been able to partner with city bus systems. Some schools, including Honaunau Elementary School, used their individual school funds to buy passenger vans, which do not require a commercial drivers license to operate, so that teachers and other school staff could pick up routes.

Last session, the house requested that the DOE convene a working group on school bus transportation inequities, but the volume of resolutions means committee members will not have a new report to draw on this session.

Sen. Tim Richards, new to the Senate Education Committee, said solving the busing problem is a top priority. Transportation gaps often align with other equity gaps that impact how well students do in school. 

“My district is pretty large — it’s basically the northern half of the Big Island, and we are not getting our rural kids to school because we don’t have enough busing — period,” Richards said. 

Principal Daniel J. Caluya gets students on the bus at the end of the school day at Na Wai Ola Public Charter School, located in Mountain View, HI 10/27/13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Woodson says the easy fix for the state’s bussing woes is to give the school facilities branch more funding to pay drivers a higher wage.  PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Rep. Diamond Garcia, who represents Kapolei and Ewa, intends to introduce three conservative bills to the House committee: a version of Florida’s Bill 57, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a ban on critical race theory in K-12 and state college curriculum and a bill designed to give parents more control over school policy by establishing elected — rather than appointed — boards in each of the state’s four counties.

Garcia admits that the bills are likely to die within the committee, but he says he does have support from some legislators across party lines.

“I would like for the bills to at least be heard, and to have the conversation, because there are hundreds and hundreds of families across our state who feel the same way,” he said.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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