Education in Hawaii

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Hawaii is home to about 251,000 children ages 5 to 19, and 96,000 adults ages 20 to 24 — together accounting for about a quarter of the state’s total population. The state is unique in that it has just one statewide public school district, while all other states make K-12 education a local responsibility. The Hawaii Department of Education oversees more than 280 public and charter schools.

The state also has more than 120 private elementary and secondary schools that serve as an alternative to the public system. All public higher education institutions fall under the University of Hawaii system, which has an enrollment of more than 60,000 at three universities and seven community colleges. The state has a number of private higher educational institutions, including Hawaii Pacific UniversityBrigham Young University-Hawaii and Chaminade University.

Hawaii’s first government-sponsored public school system was established in 1841 by King Kamehameha III, more than 100 years before the group of islands would join the United States. It is the oldest public school system west of the Mississippi River. The Hawaii Department of Education oversees all of the state’s 280-plus public and charter schools, which are spread among seven islands. Hawaii retained its unique educational structure when it achieved statehood in 1959.


These issues are the focus of our coverage:

Student Achievement

Although the state has some of the nation’s most rigorous curriculum and testing standards and ranks 12th in the nation when it comes to spending per student — due in part to the high cost of goods and services in Hawaii — it is difficult to compare to other states, because each state historically has had its own unique assessment to measure student success.

Key tools for the Hawaii State Board of Education to measure student achievement in Hawaii include:

Visit the Hawaii Student Achievement page to learn more.


Historically low student achievement and worsening school performance in meeting federal No Child Left Behindrequirements prompted parents, educators and four former governors to level criticism at the Hawaii State Board of Education. They campaigned successfully in 2010 to replace the elected Board of Education with one appointed by the governor.

Learn more about Hawaii Education Accountability.

Public K-12 Education In Hawaii

The Hawaii Department of Education’s stated vision is to have all public school graduates realize their individual goals and aspirations.

“High school students will have opportunities, not limited by time, for college-level coursework and program endorsements to prepare them to be successful in a global society. Therefore, all graduates will be fully prepared for post-secondary education and/or careers and their role as a responsible citizen.”

The state derives that responsibility for educating children in language, culture and history from the Hawaii State Constitution, Article 10, Section 4.


The total population of Hawaii is about 1.3 million, and the school-age population is estimated to be about 216,000.

Approximately 183,000 of those children are enrolled in K-12 public or public charter schools. Of those enrolled in public schools, 51 percent are eligible for free-or-reduced lunch and 11 percent are English-language learners.

Demographic breakdown Percentage
Part Hawaiian 22.31
Filipino 21.12
Other 14.36
White 12.59
Japanese 8.71
Hawaiian 4.55
Samoan 3.46
Hispanic 3.41
Chinese 3.11
Black 2.35
Portuguese 1.26
Korean 1.17
Indo-Chinese 1.03
American Indian 0.57


Education is Hawaii’s single biggest expense, accounting for about 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget. It costs the state about $2.5 billion to run the Hawaii Department of Education. Of that, $1.7 billion is located in the education budget.

Learn more about how Hawaii’s education system is funded here.


The Department of Education employs about 21,600 full-time employees. Of those, approximately 13,000 are teachers. Teachers are members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which negotiates with the Hawaii State Board of Education for two-year contracts on behalf of the teachers. Principals are members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which negotiates contracts on their behalf. Custodians and other support personnel are members of the United Public Workers.

The Board of Education recently hired a new superintendent, Christina Kishimoto, to replace Kathryn Matayoshi whose contract was up in June, 2017. Kishimoto was a superintendent of a large district in Gilbert, Arizona.

Hiring And Firing Teachers

The Board of Education and teachers union negotiate policies for hiring and firing teachers. Those policies are outlined in the two-year contract between the union and board.

Read more about the hiring policies by visiting our Hawaii teacher hiring topic page. Read more about firing policies by visiting our Hawaii teacher firing topic page.


Although it has a centralized school system, Hawaii does not have a single standardized curriculum for all its public schools. Instead, each school or group of schools is responsible for selecting its own curriculum based on standards the board of education has defined.

The Hawaii Content and Performance Standards lay out educational benchmarks in the following areas:

  1. Career & Life Skills
  2. Educational Technology
  3. Fine Arts
  4. Health
  5. Language Arts
  6. Mathematics
  7. Physical Education
  8. Science
  9. Social Studies
  10. World Languages

The board and department in 2010 began implementing the national curriculum standards, known as the Common Core State Standards.

School locations

The Hawaii Department of Education oversees about 255 regular public schools, 31 charter schools and 11 adult education schools on seven islands. A list of school districts and locations can be found here.


In 2010, the Hawaii Legislature mandated that all public schools provide at least 180 days of instruction for students by 2012. In 2011, the Legislature amended the new law to require only some schools to provide 180 days of instruction in the 2011-2012 school year, with others to follow in later years.

Hawaii public schools traditionally offer 177 to 180 days of instruction each year, with 187 to 190 teacher work days. Many schools adopt modified calendars, including some with year-round instruction. Others have adopted multi-track year-round schedules to relieve overcrowding.

 The regular school year generally begins the third week of August and ends before Kamehameha Day, celebrated on June 11. The year-round school year begins between two and four weeks earlier than the regular year. During the 2009-2010 school year, Furlough Fridaysshortened the regular school year to 163 days.

Public Charter Schools

Hawaii Public Charter Schools were implemented as a system to give more power, autonomy and flexibility to schools at the local level. It was designed to give parents and students more options when it came to choosing educational opportunities, programs and settings. It also serves as a laboratory in which innovative education and administration techniques can be tested. The charter school system is viewed as a complement to the public school system and shares some administrative components with it.

The charter schools answer directly to the board of education and serve more than 8,000 students spread among the school system’s geographic regions.

The public charter school system operates on about $60 million per year, or approximately 0.5 percent of the state’s total operating budget. The charter school system’s budget is discrete from the Department of Education’s $1.7 billion budget.

Public Higher Education

The University of Hawaii system is the state’s public higher education institution.

Read more about it on our University of Hawaii topic page.

Community and Adult Education In Hawaii

Adult education has attracted great participation in Hawaii since missionaries brought the English language to the islands. Today, more than 200 adult and community learning sites are scattered among the islands of Hawaii. Approximately 70,000 adults are currently enrolled.

One of the state’s first schools for adults, Lahainaluna School, was founded in 1831. More than two-thirds of its graduates in the first 11 years went on to become teachers. The popularity of education grew when King Kamehameha II and the Legislature of 1841 decreed that residents could not hold public office or get married without both parties having the ability to read.

The Hawaii State Legislature expanded the adult education program’s duties in the 1980s to include community education. Today, adult and community education courses include everything from classes on naturalization and high school-level courses for diploma seekers to distance-learning and family literacy classes.


  • Adult literacy
  • High school degree programs
  • Citizenship training
  • ESL
  • Non-academic “interest” courses

Private K-12 Education in Hawaii

Hawaii’s private school system has existed since Punahou School was established in 1841 and now consists of more than 120 schools with a collective enrollment of more than 38,000 students; each school with a unique vision and mission. Many of these schools were founded as educational institutions for the children of missionaries to the Hawaiian islands. Others were established as alternatives to public education. Kamehameha Schools, one of the first private learning environments in Hawaii, originated as a group of private schools focused on preserving educational excellence for people of Hawaiian ancestry.

Private Higher Education in Hawaii

Like private elementary and secondary schools, some private colleges and universities in Hawaii, like Chaminade University and Brigham Young University-Hawaii, were established to educate the children of missionary families on the islands.

Homeschooling in Hawaii

A small percentage of Hawaii’s youth are homeschooled, while maintaining a relationship with their local public schools and continuing to participate in statewide testing. The minimal regulation of homeschooling takes place within the Hawaii Department of Education.

Hawaii has support groups for parents wishing to homeschool their children.

Key Players in Education

To learn about the key players who help shape education in Hawaii, visit our Key Players in Hawaii Educationpage.

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