Everyone Loved Civic Education Bills. The Legislature Killed Them Anyway - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

In an era of rampant misinformation, the measures sought to improve students’ critical thinking skills and help them better understand how government works.

No one had anything bad to say about measures to boost civic education and media literacy in Hawaii during the last legislative session. 

Certainly not Rep. Amy Perruso, the bills’ co-sponsor, who said, “Citizens are not born, they are made and and they have to be taught these skills.”

Not teachers union lobbyist Laverne Moore, who testified at a hearing, “We want our students to be ready for the real world.”

And not the Department of Education or the University of Hawaii, even though they wanted more money to implement some of the proposals.

Not even the chairs of the Legislature’s money committees, who killed the bills with the silent treatment.

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“I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job helping the money chairs to understand the situation in social studies and civics in the public schools, because if they understood it, they would definitely have passed those measures,” Perruso said.

One proposal would have funded the hiring of two full-time civic education specialists to help train Hawaii’s instructors on how to teach the subject. That responsibility currently falls to a single specialist in social studies, a much-broader content area.

A second would have pushed for more instruction in media literacy at a time when misinformation is rampant, sometimes at the highest levels of government.

A third would have enabled the Legislature’s Public Access Room to hire someone to develop an “outreach and engagement program” in cooperation with DOE and UH to help students better understand what goes on at the State Capitol.

Perruso would have dearly loved to avail herself of all these resources when she was a social studies teacher at Mililani High School. Guidance regarding curriculum and materials was severely lacking then and “sadly, nothing has changed,” she said.

Mrs. Amy Perruso in her Mililani High School classroom.
State Rep. Amy Perruso taught social studies in Hawaii public schools for almost 20 years. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017)

It’s not as if there aren’t other efforts afoot to improve civic engagement in Hawaii. Perruso is vice-chair of perhaps the highest profile of those, the Commission to Promote and Advance Civic Education.

PACE was established in 2021 by the state Supreme Court and is working with the DOE to establish a Schools of Democracy program that could create some model schools for civic education.

Ultimately, Perruso said, any effort to truly reform Hawaii’s state and county governments depends on adequate civic education and media literacy.

Citizens “cannot possibly own any reforms that they don’t understand and they can’t understand reforms if they don’t understand how the system works,” she said.

Here’s a look at the recent civic education proposals in the Legislature and what happened to them last session:

Training The Teachers

To best understand the need for House Bill 741 to fund two full-time civic education resource specialists, consider that it’s been eight years since the DOE adopted C3 (College, Career and Civic Life), a widely used framework for teaching social studies to foster more civic-mindedness in students.

“It’s actually a work of art,” Perruso said of C3. “And it’s amazing that we were able to rewrite our social study standards so that they align with this framework. The problem is that teachers have not subsequently received any training on how to make that shift to the C3 framework, which is, you know, a pretty substantive shift that is going to require changes in strategies that many of our teachers are not ready for yet. Without support for our teachers in making that shift, the standards are just basically a piece of paper.”

HB 741 represented “a significant step toward improving civic education in Hawaii’s public schools,” testified Colin Moore, a political science professor with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, during a House Education Committee hearing. “We know that there’s a significant shortage of resources in the professional development of teachers to teach civics.”

Interim DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi.
DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi was a strong supporter of HB 741. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Laverne Moore of the Hawaii State Teachers Association testified the specialists could help ensure that young people “have the skills to engage in the working of democracy, be able to practice democratic citizenship like writing and submitting testimony and testifying at the Legislature in the pursuit of a better Hawaii.”

In written testimony, DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi said the specialists would provide “much-needed support to help students become critical consumers of information; take civic action such as voting, volunteering, and serving in leadership positions; increase informational literacy skills; and participate fully in the community.”

The bill was unanimously passed by the Education Committee, with Chair Justin Woodson noting in a report that  “in the 2020 general election, 40 states had a higher voter turnout than Hawaii. This measure appropriates funds to the Department of Education to increase access to civic education in Hawaii’s public school systems to increase voter turnout and citizen engagement over the long term.”

It was referred on Feb. 16 to the House Finance Committee, where it was ignored by Chair Kyle Yamashita for the remaining two and a half months of the session. A companion measure, Senate Bill 750, received no hearing at all in that chamber.

Greater Emphasis On Media Literacy

“Through this bill, students will be trained to filter out misinformation, disinformation, digital discrimination and online hate speech,” gushed the Hawaii State Youth Commission in its written testimony in support of House Bill 79 to “authorize” the Department of Education to expand its teaching of media literacy across all subject fields.

The DOE’’s Hayashi agreed that “it is imperative for all students to be educated in media literacy,” but his written testimony said the department already has an “action plan” for digital citizenship that includes media literacy at all grade levels.

“I think that the way the department interpreted the legislation was strange, and we should have had better conversations about it,” said Perruso. “The intent of that measure was to really help kids unpack this information and misinformation and look at all the ways in which people are trying to mislead others using media.”

Teaching critical thinking skills “is actually best addressed in all subjects,” Perruso said. “It’s in their (DOE) standards, but it’s it’s not explicit and intentional enough in terms of desired outcomes.”

The differing points of view didn’t derail the bill, which reached the House Finance Committee on the same day as HB 741. Again Yamashita ignored the proposed reforms  for the rest of the session, and the Senate never did take up a companion measure, Senate Bill 914.

Learning At The Legislature

The Public Access Room at the Capitol already provides a valuable link between state government and citizens, and House Bill 1192 proposed to strengthen that link — especially with students. The measure would have funded an additional full-time employee to establish an outreach and engagement program for K-12, post-secondary, and community education.

“This would have a significant impact in reaching and educating students and citizens across the state about the Legislature,” the PACE commission stated in written testimony. “The more direct contact that students, educators and citizens can have with the Legislature, and the more they can see the process in action, the more they will understand and want to participate in this key part of our democracy.”

As the recovery from COVID continues, “teachers have slowly started bringing their students back to the Capitol,” Perruso said. “But there’s no curriculum around it. There’s no organization to the tours. The students don’t get much in the way of content when it is an ideal opportunity to teach them about the differences perhaps between the House and the Senate and the role the governor plays.”

The Public Access Room at the Capitol would have expanded its outreach under House Bill 1192. (Hawaii House of Representatives)

The new PAR staffer would have been required to reach out to the DOE and the University of Hawaii to establish educational partnerships. Interestingly, neither the DOE nor UH provided written testimony on the bill until it was amended to require them to take part in those partnerships. Then they both requested funding for their own additional positions.

Perruso found those requests reasonable, but she also saw promising potential in just adding the PAR position.

“If the right person was found, there’s such deep, rich history, not just of the Capitol, but of constitutionalism in Hawaii,” she said. “And I think that our students are not exposed enough to people who are familiar with that history.”

HB 1192 actually progressed much further than the other two civic education measures, clearing Yamashita’s Finance Committee and then the full House on unanimous votes.

It was ultimately halted by Sen. Angus McKelvey, but like the others it basically fell victim to a money committee chair. McKelvey’s Government Operations Committee had already approved the Senate’s companion measure, Senate Bill 749, which was then ignored by Ways and Means Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz.

Noting the WAM roadblock, McKelvey said there was no reason to further consider either measure, adding, “They can pick it up next year.”

Perruso intends to do just that.

“This, I think, is why I ran for office,” said the former teacher. “What I think I can contribute to the common good is an emphasis on service and civic education.”

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

PAR goes around the islands when the Legislature is out of session and does pretty good presentations to whatever groups ask, but *all* the keiki in school should have at least one presentation from PAR sometime before they graduate. There are around 90 high schools in Hawai`i and I don't think just filling the school auditorium or football field for each school is going to be effective.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 2 months ago

Money numbers as set by bill drafts need to stay in the bills as they go through committee hearings. Software can easily track and add up total proposed appropriations. Conference committees should make the final decisions by public vote, not not the "whim of the WAM" chair.

DanlCSmith · 2 months ago

I'm sorry .. Is this something that should shock us with the track record that our Legislature maintains with killing things that are favorable by the people of Hawaii will only get worse, and this is the reason why Hawaii voters need to pay attention, and do their homework at election time, This Civic Education Bill was something that everyone was benefiting from and of course the Legislature didn't want that to happen, people might continue to learn something to help them along in life.

unclebob61 · 2 months ago

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