Hawaii is the only state that isn’t broken up by multiple school districts. That means Hawaii — whose population of roughly 1.4 million people makes it the 11th smallest state —  actually encompasses one of the largest school districts in the country.

The ninth largest one, to be exact, costing taxpayers nearly $1.5 billion dollars annually for operations alone. Together, the Department of Education and charter schools are the state’s single biggest expense.

The state’s school district serves more than 185,000 students (and their parents) and roughly 25,000 employees, a little over half of whom are teachers. From Niihau to Keaau, that district comprises a hodgepodge of cultures and income groups, school contexts and learning needs.

And according to both Duke Aiona and David Ige — the Republican and Democrat vying to be Hawaii’s next governor — therein lies one of the greatest challenges facing public education in the state.

Kindergarten students at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

Kindergarten students at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014. (PF Bentley/Civil Beat)

In fact, the two candidates have a lot in common when it comes to assessing Hawaii’s public schools. One of the only education issues on which they appear to disagree strongly is the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state to amend Hawaii’s constitution and permit the allocation of public funds for private preschools. Aiona supports it, while Ige opposes it.

Both Aiona and Ige think that Hawaii’s students aren’t achieving their full potential in the classroom and that the state imposes unfair expectations on teachers.

Ige is endorsed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association, and his wife is a vice principal at Kanoelani Elementary School in Waipio. Aiona sometimes works as a substitute teacher at Kapolei and Holomua elementary schools.

Aiona and Ige regularly use the phrase “school empowerment” when talking about how they’d overhaul Hawaii’s DOE, a term they defined as enabling principals and teachers — rather than state administrators and the appointed, nine-member Board of Education — to decide what happens in the classroom. Neither of them are very happy with the BOE, saying they support the idea of an appointed board but question the quality of current members’ expertise.

Their focus could be a response to — or at least a reflection of — the public disapproval that seems to have dominated conversations about the DOE lately. One of the most obvious examples of that disapproval is the newly formed Education Institute of Hawaii, which promotes “school empowerment” and is being spearheaded by a board of directors that includes seven retired principals and Randy Roth, who as former Gov. Linda Lingle’s education advisor pushed for decentralizing the state’s school district.

Both Aiona and Ige said they’re skeptical of the Common Core standards, new universal math and language arts learning benchmarks that went live in Hawaii schools this fall. The standards are being used as a factor to determine teachers’ evaluation scores and, ultimately, their pay.

And they both lament what they describe as the failure of Act 51 — the decade-old law that aimed to “reinvent” the DOE, namely by how schools are funded — to fully achieve most of its objectives. The far-reaching reform legislation strived to give principals more control over their budgets and created the “weighted student formula,” which bases a school’s allocations on student need rather than strictly on enrollment.



Photo Credit: PF Bentley for Civil Beat