When government tells you there is no money, what they are really telling you is that it’s not a priority.
Sadly, that is the situation with public education in Hawaii. Despite clear and overwhelming evidence of a severely underfunded public education system, our elected government leaders refuse to make education a priority.
Below are just three of the most sobering facts that are undeniable:
w Hawaii is 47th in the nation in completion rates for 9th grade through college.
w Hawaii’s public education spending, as a share of combined state and local government spending, is the lowest in the nation.
w Up to 75 percent of educators at some Hawaii schools are considered “inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field” (i.e. an English teacher teaching a calculus class). As HSTA (Hawaii State Teachers Association) points out, this percentage is usually higher for schools in high poverty areas, or with high populations of Native Hawaiian students.
The knee-jerk reaction from those on the right will be “It’s not all about the money.” And I agree, but the lack of adequate funding is a HUGE factor that must be addressed if systemic, long-term improvement is going to occur.
To provide a positive classroom experience, and to maximize the benefit of exposure to a positive adult role model, class sizes must be kept as small as possible.
To ensure all students are trained and confident working in the world of tomorrow, access and training in technology is essential.
They key component at the very foundation of all efforts to achieve excellence in education is the presence of a highly qualified teacher. In order to attract and retain quality teachers, and avoid the existing challenges of retention and longevity in our schools, we must improve their pay and working conditions.
Which is more important, the Oahu rail system or public education for all the islands of Hawaii?
Why is there no special session to fund education?
Why are legislators not willing to increase taxes on tourism when it could reduce class sizes, ensure we have a qualified teacher in every classroom, and provide adequate technology infrastructure (just a few of the most pressing needs)?
There are many potential sources of new funding that could be implemented, if the political will was available to do so:
1) Property tax surcharge on second homes and investment properties over $1 million.
2) A modest GET (general excise tax) increase, balanced by eliminating the tax on groceries and affordable rentals.
3) Closing the existing tax loophole for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs).
4) Increasing various taxes on hotels and the visitor industry, such as car rentals, hotels and TVRs (transient vacation rentals).
5) Legalizing and taxing the responsible recreational use of cannabis by adults.
6) Institute “sugar tax” on sugar beverages and factory-made junk food.
These are just a handful of a myriad of other options available to help pay for public education, but the state Legislature seems to like none of them, apparently preferring to simply maintain the status quo.
The problem is, the status quo is failing our next generation of future teachers, doctors, scientists, lawmakers and urban planners. These are the young leaders we are counting on to carry the torch after we are gone. We must make it a priority to prepare them for life after high school.
When the HSTA suggests raising the GET by 1 percent, the Legislature says NO. When the HSTA then suggested increasing taxes on the million-dollar homes of absentee owners, the Legislature again said no.
Few legislators will say our schools are adequately funded, but even fewer will step up to suggest an alternative funding solution. Seems it is easier to just say no and avoid the hard political choice involved with raising taxes or creating new revenue sources.
The solution, as always, in dealing with all elected government bodies is active public engagement. Especially in situations that require increasing taxes, it is only when the public (or the large, monied interest, in the case of rail) loudly demands results that results will be forthcoming.
We all should be asking the question, if they agree our schools are underfunded and yet they disagree with the proposals put forward by the HSTA, what alternative ideas are they suggesting?
Legislators, councilmembers, governor and mayors are elected to lead and develop creative solutions to our problems, not merely to reject the leadership of others.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.