privateSchoolGeorge Vanisi says he struggles to get by as the breadwinner of a seven-person family who earns just $16,000 a year as a mason contractor.

That $16,000, according to the 46-year-old Palolo resident, has to cover all of his family’s expenses, including medical bills related to his wife’s heart problems.

And yet, Vanisi says he was until recently also spending money on private school tuition for two of his children. Those two boys, who are 13 and 14, attend Manoa’s St. Francis School, a medium-sized K-12 Catholic school that costs about $10,000 annually per student.

Vanisi never paid full tuition for his sons. That would be more than his income. The school grants discounts for siblings and offers other forms of financial aid. But even the cost of discounted tuition can be a crushing burden. So Vanisi says he worked out a deal with the school to pay his sons’ tuition through in-kind masonry and other on-site contracting work.

Vanisi says his wife home-schools their other three children — ages seven, nine and 12 — because the couple doesn’t believe public schools instill enough discipline. They plan to teach all of their children themselves until the kids become teenagers.

They are like many parents in Hawaii who go to remarkable lengths to keep their children out of public schools.

Education experts have looked at why families abandon public schools.

“There’s a persistent narrative that has developed around Hawaii public schools … as being inadequate and not high quality,” said University of Hawaii College of Education professor Lois Yamauchi.

An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 16 percent of Hawaii’s roughly 214,000 school-age children attended private schools during the 2010-11 school year, the most recent year for which comparable national statistics are available. Hawaii leads all states.

By comparison, the national average was 8 percent, with 12 states, including Colorado, Texas and Wyoming, reporting private school populations of 5 percent or less.

Private school enrollment in the islands ticked down a notch to 15 percent this year (after an influx of 5,000 students into the state’s K-12 population), according to an analysis of data from the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools (HAIS) and the state Department of Education. So the islands still nearly double the national average.


Photo Credit: PF Bentley of Civil Beat