Proposed constitutional amendment could be an elixir for public schools
“Only in Hawaii” is a catchphrase usually reserved to describe our paradise, but it also applies to its darker side, particularly when it comes to our state’s purposefully underfunded public schools.
From its plantation-era inception, public education has faced long odds, and that is because funding for it always has been purposefully short of what has been needed. That sorry situation finally can be corrected next fall, when voters can approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would take public schooling seriously.
Public education in Hawaii began in the plantation era to promote some semblance of civilized society. However, those who worked the fields should not be highly educated, the plantation elite decided, because educated workers could begin question their lowly station in life. Thus, public school started off substandard because the ruling class made it so, throwing crumbs to the public schools while generously endowing the private institutions where they would be sending their children.
That ruling class met its Waterloo upon the Democratic revolution that led to many of the working class becoming the governing body of Hawaii. But even as the working-class Japanese-Americans returned having fought for the United States during World War II, the statehood and Constitutional Convention that followed left public education wanting, with disproportionally low funding, as compared to most Mainland public school systems.
Why did underfunding public schools continue? Because they who wrote Hawaii’s Constitution put public school funding in the General Fund, where it would be subject to the whims and vagaries that occur depending on the direction the political pendulum is swinging. Only in Hawaii are public schools so serendipitously funded. The rest of the nation’s public education is paid for through separate funds designated for it. Property taxes are almost always the source of that funding.
Not here, though, and that also was purposeful. The rationale of those at that original Con Con was that the state would raise revenues through income taxes, general excise taxes and the like, and reserve property taxation for the counties.
What has been the result? The lowest teacher salaries in the nation when adjusted for cost of living, and the lowest per capita funding of schools in general. Consequently, teacher shortages are chronic, and many of the buildings that shelter our students remain dilapidated.
Many of those freshmen lawmakers did not choose to heed the pleas of those entrusted to operate the public schools, who came hats in hands asking for more funding. They decided instead to ensure the longevity of their political tenure with highways, community centers, parks, gyms and other pork barrel projects that would serve their districts primarily. The big picture where education fit in was not their sights.
As this predicament for education wore on it worsened. “We can only do so much,” the state budget-makers would cry. “We understand that public education is underfunded, but where is the money to come from to correct it?”
Where indeed. Where it should have come from in the first place, in its own fund, where public schools would not have to compete with other, more narrowly defined interests. Where funding was not subject to which House speaker or Senate president held sway on the majority.
The decision to limit property taxation to the counties was Con Con’s biggest mistake. Our rate of property taxation is the lowest in the country. That would be commendable if not for nonresident property investors seeing profits to be made. Woo-hoo! Come buy up all the property in Hawaii on speculation, and leave the residents to wonder how it was that housing had come to be prohibitively expensive and in short supply nonetheless.
Do our public school students deserve a decent education? Do they deserve to be able to afford to remain in their homeland when they graduate? You decide. Please vote yes on the proposed constitutional amendment.
* Alan Isbell is a 4th-grade teacher at Wailuku Elementary School, and is president Hawaii State Teachers Association Maui Chapter.