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Lanai students have right to ‘Olelo Hawai‘i

Despite challenges, high court rules state Constitution requires all have ‘reasonable access’ to Hawaiian immersion programs

A state Supreme Court ruling in a Lanai case this week affirming Hawaiian language’s significance in public education has implications that reach beyond the Maui County island, the plaintiff’s attorney said Thursday.

The court ruled that the Hawaii Constitution requires “reasonable access” within the state Department of Education to Hawaiian immersion programs that include the Hawaiian language, vacating a 1st Circuit Court order in 2016 that gave the DOE a partial judgment in its favor.

“It’s an amazing opinion,” David Kauila Kopper, one of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. lawyers representing the plaintiff, told The Maui News on Thursday. “It has implications not just on Lanai but for all of Hawaii.”

Hawaiian immersion education options, also called Kaiapuni schools, exist at 23 sites on five of the main Hawaiian Islands, but there is no program on Lanai, according to the Education Department.

The case, brought by Lanai mother Chelsa Clarabal on behalf of her two school-age daughters, now will go back to the lower Oahu court, Kopper said.

“It is truly a blessing to have been able to bring this case for not only my daughters but for all the families on Lanai,” Clarabal said in a news release. “Fairness and equality for Lanai is what we strived to achieve.”

In a 4-to-1 decision Tuesday, justices ruled that the case should be sent back to the Circuit Court for further review. The majority opinion, written by Justice Richard Pollack, said that access to Hawaiian history, culture and language education, a handful of times per week, was not enough and that steps must be taken to build an immersion program for the girls.

The 49-page opinion said the state Constitution’s Article 10, Section 4, which provides a Hawaiian education program in public schools, “was adopted for the express purpose of reviving the Hawaiian language.”

Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald issued a concurring opinion, saying that the DOE did not provide a program sufficient to allow the girls to become fluent in Hawaiian. He differed with the majority, saying that while immersion programs satisfy Article 10, Section 4, there could be other methods to achieve the same goal.

Justice Paula Nakayama in a written dissent said that the state should provide “as many students as possible” with immersion access but disagrees that the state Constitution mandates it.

In 2014, Clarabal filed a complaint in Circuit Court against the Department of Education and Board of Education, alleging a state constitutional violation for failing to provide her daughters access to Hawaiian immersion education in the island’s only public school, Lanai High and Elementary.

Clarabal’s daughters had been enrolled in Kula Kaiapuni o Pa’ia at Paia Elementary School. They “faced difficulties” as a result of the language barrier when transitioning to the Lanai school in fall 2013, the ruling said.

The Lanai school offers a few Hawaiian history and culture classes during grade and high school. A Hawaiian language summer program was offered in recent years.

The ruling cited the difficulties of setting up an immersion program on Lanai. The school principal pointed to teacher recruiting challenges due to the island’s remote and rural location.

“Many teachers are not interested in moving to a geographically isolated area with limited access to housing, child care and other conveniences,” the principal said. Also, teacher salaries are decided by a collective bargaining agreement between the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association and incentives at hard-to-staff schools are limited.

Still, the majority of justices ruled that access must be provided and offered steps, such as providing greater financial or other incentives to attract immersion teachers to Lanai, furnishing transportation for a teacher to commute to Lanai, partnering with community members, modifying school days and restructuring teacher duties.

“On review, we hold that the Hawaiian education provision was intended to require the state to institute a program that is reasonably calculated to revive the Hawaiian language,” the ruling said. “Because the uncontroverted evidence in the record demonstrates that providing reasonable access to Hawaiian immersion education is currently essential to reviving the Hawaiian language, it is a necessary component of any program.”

‘Aha Punana Leo, a Native Hawaiian nonprofit started in 1983 to revitalize the Hawaiian language and known for its Hawaiian language preschool programs, also has been vital in establishing Kaiapuni sites within DOE, the opinion said.

Nonprofit CEO Ka’iulani Laeha praised the decision Wednesday and acknowledged the challenges ahead.

“Speaking on behalf of thousands of ohana who are committed to reviving our ‘Olelo Hawai’i, this is a huge milestone,” Laeha said, adding that Punana Leo is celebrating this win but also acknowledges the challenges in implementing the decision. “This is a time where all of us need to work collaboratively with the DOE to make sure we have sufficient programming that is more than adequate to serve the ohana that choose this education for their keiki.”

The DOE did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

** This story has a clarification from the original published on Friday, August 14, 2019.