FLUX Hawai’i Associate Editor Eunica Escalante reviews the changing state of the public school system.
The 2009-2010 school year made Hawai‘i’s public schools infamous. It was the year the state unveiled Furlough Fridays, the controversial cost-cutting measure intended to keep Hawai‘i’s budget afloat by taking 17 teaching days away from public schools and the 171,000 students who attended them. The Guardian labelled the debacle “draconian.” A New York Times headline announced: “Hawaii’s Children, Left Behind.” And Mother Jones magazine described how the whole state was personally scolded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Suddenly, in the eyes of the nation, we were the canaries in the coal mine. Our public schools were a cautionary tale for how far the nation’s education system could devolve.
At first glance, Furlough Fridays seemed measuredly rational. Unlike other states where schools are funded through property taxes, Hawai‘i’s 256 public schools are funded by the state. In the aftermath of the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the state’s budget was suffering from a $1 billion deficit. They were hard times, and Governor Linda Lingle called for drastic measures. As the first Republican governor of the overwhelmingly blue state in almost half a century, tough calls were what she was voted in to make.
The Hawai‘i State Department of Education’s budget was to be slashed by 13.85 percent over two years. Rubbing salt into the wound was the state legislature’s $468 million cut from the annual school budget. Teachers settled with a 7.9 percent pay cut. With not enough money to go around, something was going to have to take the hit. The Lingle administration decided the students and their parents would bear the brunt of the fall.
In 2009, I started seventh grade at Moanalua Middle School. Perhaps I was blinded by the glittering proximity to adolescence begat by entering middle school, but to me, the impact of Furlough Fridays barely registered. I was concerned with more immediate concepts like transitioning my wardrobe from Children’s Place to Hollister, what identity to assume now that I was most certifiably an adult, and how to maneuver my relationship with my first boyfriend. One friend recalled the delight of having less school. Another remembered that all the three-day weekends meant she and her family flew to Disneyland a lot. Our plates were simply too full of teenage angst to realize the education system intended to shuttle us into a bright future was falling into disarray. Fortunately for us, the adults in the room understood the repercussions.
For them, Furlough Fridays weren’t happening in a vacuum. For decades, the slogging bureaucracy of Hawai‘i’s unique centralized education system paired with outdated curriculums left students ill-equipped for the 21st century’s rapidly evolving workplace. In 1994, Hawai‘i’s fourth graders ranked 48th nationally in average reading proficiency, only surpassing Louisiana and California. By 2008, a year before the furloughs, little had improved. In Education Week’s annual Quality Counts survey, Hawai‘i received a “D” for the state’s poor performance in student achievement. Public schools had become a bioindicator for the state of the state, joining the rising cost of living and growing homelessness in quantifying our decline.
Despite widespread public backlash, the furloughs happened as scheduled. In the months that followed, tensions between lawmakers and activists escalated, culminating in the highly publicized arrests of two parents and one student activist holding a multi-day sit-in at the governor’s office.
In June 2010, in the fall-out to the furloughs, a bill mandating a 180-day school year passed into law, protecting the school year from any future discretionary cuts. The same bill extended instructional time per year, requiring 915 hours for elementary schools and 990 hours for middle and high schools.
At the time, these seemed like mere reactionary changes—every other state already had laws requiring a minimum instructional time. The new mandate felt more like a public relations clean-up disguised as progress. Yet looking back on it today, it was a promising first step.
Furlough Fridays had pushed public schools from the periphery. “Furloughs, protests and arrests were likely the catalyst for structural change that the state’s education system needed,” Sonny Ganaden wrote in his analysis of the affair for Flux’s Commodity Issue in 2010. “That maybe, like a meth-mouthed junkie on cable TV’s Intervention, the only thing that really works is hitting rock bottom.” In the next decade, real breakthroughs would come with an acknowledgment of a broken system, and a willingness from education leaders to fix it.
“Today we face different challenges in giving our children the knowledge and skills they will need for the future,” Hawai‘i Governor David Ige announced in 2018, freshly sworn into his second term and outlining his administration’s bold, new vision for the forthcoming four years. “In a changing world,” Ige continued, “we need more than a one-size-fitsall-model.”
Ways of teaching once seen as radical are providing students with more accessible learning environments.
Ige’s pronouncement was a not-so-subtle dig at the DOE, whose centralized structure has been blamed for the state’s failing public schools, which were still scoring among the lowest in the nation. (In 2018, Hawai‘i’s ACT scores, the national test for 11th graders, ranked the fourth worst in the country.) Calls to dismantle the statewide system, which places policymaking for everything from repairs to curriculum for the state’s 283 public schools under the single entity, have continued for decades. Its unitary structure was meant to democratize school funding by giving every school across the state the same budget.
Admittedly, this structure has prevented the classism that plagues schools in other states funded by each district’s property tax, which results in a disparity between higher-income and poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Critics argue, however, that over the years, the DOE developed a bureaucratic, top-down style of management that monopolized control, barring schools from implementing the innovation needed to address their unique problems.
The DOE’s statewide structure still stands, and if past attempts for decentralization are anything to go by—like Superintendent Charles Toguchi’s denied 1994 proposal, which would have pushed decision-making down to the school level—it seems that centralization is here to stay. Instead, reformers have opted for a rebranding of decentralization, switching their rallying cries to school empowerment. The new approach would give individual schools the flexibility and resources to implement their own changes.
The Ige administration has made school empowerment among its leading platforms, starting in 2014, when Ige was first running for office. It has been coded into his policy agenda, coloring everything from the state’s Blueprint for Education to the DOE’s Strategic Plan. (Hawai‘i’s push for school empowerment was current DOE superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s primary motivator in taking the job.) In the 2017 Blueprint for Education, the governor’s Every Student Succeeds Act team devoted a whole section to school empowerment, describing a new system that “reverses the current model that operates through “top down” mandates,” instead placing decisionmaking “as close as possible to the classroom.” The rest of the blueprint is tinged with more expressions of empowerment, from encouraging “innovation that emerges from the unique needs of individual schools” to cultivating a culture within the DOE that supports the needs of educators, rather than vice versa.
The tangible change implemented over the last few years shows the administration is not just blustering either. Since President Barrack Obama passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, loosening the restrictions of its predecessor the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, local policymakers have become emboldened in their reform efforts. In 2017, the DOE established the Hawai‘i Innovation Fund Grant, culling a combined $1 million from its Federal Title I and State general funds. Through the grant, teachers can apply for up to $250,000, rolled out over two years, to fund innovative approaches. Winners like Hawai‘i Tech Academy in Waipahu, who used their micro-grant to teach coding for miniature driverless robots, emphasized a focus on STEM. Others are implementing a schoolwide approach, like Waimea Canyon Middle School, who is restructing its bell schedule to dedicate 20 percent of the school day to project-based learning. In 2019, Kishimoto reserved $13 million of the DOE’s professional development fund—normally used to subsidize things like teacher training and symposiums—and handed it over to the principals themselves.
With new resources and an empowering flexibility provided by a refreshed structure, Hawai‘i’s educators are in an emboldened position to redefine what education means in the 21st century. It’s a shift that many feel has been overdue. In their sweeping analysis of Hawaiʻi’s education system, “Culture and Educational Policy in Hawai‘i: The Silencing of Native Voices,” educators Maenette K.P. Benham and Ronald Heck explain public schools’ classist origins. Primarily attended by the children of immigrant workers and Native Hawaiians, public schools were structured to create a stable workforce for the plantations, rather than generate upward mobility for its students. Curriculum and instruction methods centered on low-level task performance and acquiescing to authority figures, producing cogs that could seamlessly fit into the machine of capitalism.
Strides in Hawai‘i’s public schools have been made since then, though the drudgery of learning exemplified by memorizing information from textbooks and standardized testing, remains the status quo. The innovation happening at Hawai‘i’s own public and charter schools (which are also public but have different leadership) remind us that it doesn’t have to be. Take The School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability charter school in Kaimukī, for example, or Castle High School’s Po‘okela Academy. Here, as reported in Flux’s School Spirit Issue, traditional classroom settings have been renounced in favor of innovative teaching methods. Ways of teaching once seen as radical are providing students with more accessible learning environments. Project-based learning—like learning geometry and physics through building a canoe or biology through tending to a field of taro—lets students apply their knowledge, helping them understand its implications in daily life.
The success lies in making education relatable to students. Today’s educators are experimenting with new ways of making learning accessible, weaving place-based or cultural learning into the curriculum. At Mālama Honua Charter School in Waimanālo, for example, students don’t receive report cards. Instead, they’re graded through assessments grounded in their culture, like the completion of a ho‘ike, or community presentation, at the school year’s end. It also prepares them for the 21st century workplace by instilling skills not learned in textbooks, like adaptability and self-accountability.
Innovations such as these has been a well-trodden path for Hawaiian language immersion schools, many of which have had to redefine the traditional school structure to fit their needs. The project-based approach implemented by today’s nontraditional classrooms have been a routine method for Hawaiian immersion schools.
Despite public education’s exciting transformation in the past decade, deep-rooted issues still plague the system. In 2019, for a piece in Flux’s Nights Issue, I met Courtnie Tokuda, a preschool teacher working a restaurant graveyard shift just to afford the cost of living in Hawai‘i. “I have a master’s degree and 10 years of teaching experience, and still I take in more money per hour being a server than being a teacher,” she confessed to me. A year earlier, WalletHub ranked Hawai‘i as the worst teacher-friendly state with the lowest teacher pay. A record number of local educators are leaving for better prospects in other states, according to data from the DOE, and an increasing shortage of teachers has left a high percentage of Hawai‘i’s classrooms with unlicensed teachers. Corey Rosenlee, Hawai‘i State Teachers Association president, reported last year that over 1,000 Hawai‘i public classrooms were taught by unqualified teachers, educators who have not gone through State Approved Teacher Education Program.
Meanwhile, decades of distrust in public schools have forged a culture of elite flight to private schools favored by those with means. Even families without means routinely work two or three jobs to send their children to the same institutions. It’s created a perception that public schools will always be second best, no matter how much educators innovate or how successful students are.
The state’s public education system is a tangled web of history, culture, and politics. For this piece, I unknowingly jumped into a rabbit hole of test-score statistics, bureaucracy, and think pieces that were little more than glorified finger-pointing. At times, the solution seemed laughingly obvious to me. Raise teachers’ wages! Then, they won’t have to split their energy between educating Hawai‘i’s children and working a multiple jobs to survive, I thought, dusting my hands off and calling it a day. Or, change the school days’ start times! Who can remember the quadratic formula when they’re still wiping the sleep from their eyes? I know I couldn’t.
Then I realized that fixing public education isn’t just another short-response question. The options aren’t clearly laid out like a multiple choice. Like we were taught in school, the only way to a solution is to work through the problem. After all, the toughest questions always have the most rewarding results.