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Legislation for Hawaiʻi’s keiki

Yesterday, the House and Senate Committees on Education (EDN, EDU) met to discuss education bills that have crossed over from each chamber.

Will Caron

On the House side, EDN Chair Roy Takumi heard testimony on bills covering a wide range of education-related issues. Most bills were passed, but SB2922 (which would lengthen the school year from 180 days to an unspecified number of days, and would discontinue the requirements for a minimum number of student hours beginning next year or the year after), was deferred until tomorrow, after most of the testimony from stakeholders ended up opposing the bill.

SB 2922: Deferred.

“I know some of you [representatives] pretty well from the Furlough crisis of 2009, and I have to tell you that reading up on this issue—it makes me very nervous that we might be headed toward some big confrontation once again,” said Margaret Higa of the Parents for Public Schools (PPS), Hawaii. “Everything we do, we do for the children … In order to support [them], we have to have a healthy and vibrant educational environment, and that is impossible without excellent teachers. We’re basically increasing teacher’s work-load without increasing resources.

“We’re also very tired of the adversarial attitude toward teachers,” she continued.  “We need to bring instructors to the table, especially when it comes to something like designing a new bell system. The current suggested bell schedules are frightening … You’re not going to necessarily improve anything if it’s done in such a haphazard way. Realistically, are you going to ask teachers to redo their curriculum each year to match the changing bell schedules? That’s crazy! But if they don’t, those will just be wasted minutes … We think the schools should be allowed to create their own bell schedules.

“The bottom line is that the quality of education can’t be counted up in minutes,” Higa concluded. PPS also submitted suggestions to the committee on how they could fix the bill to address these problems.

Cheri Nakamura, the director of the Hui for Excellence in Education, agreed with Higa’s position, and pointed out that without a minimum number of instructional hours, disparities between the quality of education at different schools can arise. The Hawaii State Parent-Teacher Association and the State Department of Education submitted written testimony in opposition as well, expressing their desire to keep the current law in place.

On the other hand, Kris Coffield of IMUAlliance testified that the bill was a good way to increase instructional hours (a goal of the legislature for the past four years), and to help schools that have been missing their minimum instructional hours. “I want to give you a short anecdote about how difficult it is, under the current system, for schools to meet instructional hour [requirements],” he said. “Kahuku high school recently tried to meet the 990 requirement they’re currently governed by. They designed a bell schedule intended to meet 990 instructional hours as well as the contractually mandated maximum of 1,285 teacher instructional minutes per week. Parents, teachers, HSTA—everyone signed off on it.

“They submitted it to the DOE for approval and it was rejected because it was 2 minutes short of 1,285,” continued Coffield. “Even though that’s a maximum, the reasoning from the department was that it is an absolute figure. We think that confusion is going to be exacerbated when we move up to the 1,080 instructional hours requirement. We would submit that as we move forward the hour requirements will be untenable.

“We think the virtue of the current bill is twofold,” Coffield concluded. “First, by taking out the hours requirement, it actually does do what the previous testifier [Higa] wanted, in that it allows the schools flexibility in determining their own bell schedule. The cumbersome process of selecting from the four available bell schedules can be avoided as well, if the hour requirements are removed.

“The other virtue is that, while it keeps the legislature’s goal of lengthening instructional time, it does so in a manner that allows the details of how those increases are to be apportioned to be contractually negotiated; so it respects collective bargaining and this, in turn, respects the input of all the various stakeholders.”

It appeared that the committee agreed with Coffield’s argument, but deferred the bill anyway in order to discuss the concerns raised by the other stakeholders.

SB 2423: Allows schools and classes to participate in fundraising or charitable activities, in conjunction with a charitable organization, based on criteria established by the board of education. Passed unamended (9-0, Reps. Takai and Hanohano excused).

Hawaiʻi State Ethics Commission Executive Director Les Kondo testified that the commission has “strong concerns” about the bill regarding commercial components of charitable promotions and about the “fair-treatment” aspect in determining which non-profits will benefit from state dollars.

Kondo brought up the Macy’s promotion that sent dollars to the Make a Wish Foundation, but also benefited the department store chain. “The state ethics code prohibits use of state resources for private business purposes, which includes profit as well as non-profit purposes,” said Kondo. “This bill is about fundraising for private, non-profit organizations, not the schools. Those are very different things.”

The Ethics Commission recommended that the bill be deferred until the commission has time to go over and amend problematic language, but the committee voted to pass the bill instead.

SB 2235: Requires children to undergo a physical examination prior to attending seventh grade beginning with the 2015-2016 school year. Passed with amendments (9-0, Reps. Takai and Hanohano excused).

Most of the testimony was in favor, though the State Department of Health representative and a number of other testifiers made the suggestion that the language be amended to allow students to undergo the exam during a 12-month period around the start of their 7th Grade year, rather than forcing them to have the exam before the start of the school year. The committee included the suggestion in the House draft before passing the bill.

SB 2424: Requires the development of a cooling master strategy and comprehensive study on air conditioning efficiency for the public schools. Passed unamended (9-0, Reps. Takai and Hanohano excused).

Meanwhile, the Senate Committee on Education (EDU), chaired by Sen. Jill Tokuda, discussed two house bills relating to early education.

HB 1676: Authorizes the Executive Office on Early Learning to enter into agreements with the Department of Education and public charter schools for use of vacant or underutilized classrooms as public preschool classrooms. Passed with amendments (3-0, Sens. Gabbard and Slom excused).

Tom Hutton, the executive director of the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission pointed out that the language in the House bill had not been updated from “vacant or underutilized” classrooms to “available” classrooms. The committee amended the language before passing the bill.

HB 2276: Establishes the Early Childhood Education Program within the Early Learning System upon the ratification of a constitutional amendment permitting the appropriation of public funds for private early childhood education. Passed with amendments (3-0, Sens. Gabbard and Slom excused).

Last, but not least, the house version of the Early Childhood Education Program establishment bill received strong support from the Executive Office on Early Learning, represented by executive director Georgenne “GG” Weisenfeld, from the State Department of Education (DOE), from the State Department of Health (DOH), from the State Department of Public Safety, from the University of Hawaiʻi system, from the Hui for Excellence in Education, from Kamehameha Schools, from the Democratic Party of Hawaiʻi, Good Beginnings Alliance, Hawaii Community Alliance, the Pacific Resource Partnership, the Chamber of Commerce and numerous other organizations and individuals.

Good Beginnings Alliance Executive Director Deborah Zysman pointed out that in a recent Star-Advertiser poll, 62 percent of Hawaiʻi voters are in favor of amending the constitution to allow the creation of the Early Childhood Education Program public-private partnership.

The bill also received support from a pair of pre-school students named Ruby and Roxanna. “People learn a lot at pre-school,” said Roxanna. “All kids should go. I went on a field trip to the [Honolulu] Aquarium today. I liked the jellyfish the best. It was awesome!

“I want the bills to turn into laws,” concluded Roxanna.

Despite this, not all the testimony was in favor of the bill as is. The Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA), represented by President Wil Okabe and Executive Director Al Nagasako, testified that it was concerned over the proposed public-private partnership and wanted it to be placed fully under the control of the DOE, and over any possibilities that the bill could result in a voucher program, something HSTA opposes. Weisenfeld was able to address some of their concerns and Sen. Tokuda suggested that HSTA send her committee language that would make them feel at ease over the voucher issue.

A group of high school seniors from Kea’au on Hawaiʻi island video-conferenced their opposition testimony, saying they felt it was unfair for private schools to be the beneficiaries of public money, even if it is for pre-school. Vice-chair Michelle Kidani asked them if they were aware of the importance of early childhood education on the life-long cognitive ability of children, something they seemed not to have considered.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, who represents Kea’au in the Senate, assured the students that their opinions were very important to the committee and thanked them for participating in the political process.

Perhaps the most dramatic testimony in opposition came from Charles Kim, a private attorney in Honolulu who has been council to HSTA in the past. Kim was concerned that his tax dollars would be going toward a series of “baby-sitting” programs, rather than legitimate early education.

“Everyone is in favor of pre-school. The question is who shall provide this education?” said Kim. “Shall the DOE provide this? Or shall it be administered by private providers? I have real hesitance when it comes to private providers.”

Kim’s criticism focused on Kapolei-based Seagull Schools, which provides early-childhood education as well as inter-generational education with disabled seniors.

“Disabled adults being helped by pre-school children doesn’t sound like early childhood education to me,” said Kim. “That sounds like baby-sitting.”

Kim’s comments sparked resentment with Sen. Kidani, who told Kim that his comments “offended” her. Sen. Tokuda also commented that she had sent two of her children to Seagull School and that the school is, in fact, award winning and has gained national recognition for its innovative inter-generational curriculum. She suggested that Kim talk with the school’s director, Chuck Larson, who is himself the recipient of an outstanding educator award.

When it came time to vote, Kim asked that Sen. Kidani be disqualified from voting, saying that she had, “lost her way” and “gone the way of [Rep.] Faye Hanohano,” in forgetting her duty as a public servant to listen to opposing points of views from her own “without personally reacting.”

His request was denied and, as Kidani voted ‘aye’ on the measure, she turned toward Kim and said, unblinkingly: “The vice-chair, on behalf of Roxanne and Ruby and all 4 year-olds, votes aye.”

Both bills were passed as SD1s, taking into account the suggestions from HSTA and the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission. On Friday, the two committees will meet again to discuss additional education bills. These bills will now go before the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Chaired by Sen. David Ige (Sen. Kidani is vice-chair of this committee as well).