Above: Teachers gather at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol rotunda on Monday, February 13, 2017 | Photo: Ed Greevy
The February 13 Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) march from the Neal Blaisdell Center, culminating in a rally at the State Capitol, marked a shift in the public role played by HSTA. Joined by parents, students and community members, Hawaiʻi public school teachers were moved to march by both anger and compassion. Teachers have engaged individuals and communities around the state to shift the conversation on public education to a vision based on actual classroom experiences and realities.
One motivation clearly shared by teachers marching on Monday was righteous anger about the slow destruction of an already weak public education system in Hawaiʻi. Teachers are witnesses living inside a cracked and strained system, quietly being ravaged by defunding, top-down leadership by non-educators, overemphasis on standardized testing, an unfair and invalid teacher evaluation system, and the intensifying effects of a worsening teacher shortage crisis. As teaching in Hawaiʻi becomes less and less attractive as a profession, the state’s unwillingness to move beyond short-term, ineffective policies to attract, recruit and retain quality educators leaves hundreds of positions vacant. These vacancies create even more stress on the teachers who remain in this system, with increased workloads (related to teaching and learning), increased care loads (related to caring for rising numbers of high-needs students) and intensified time pressures, with more state mandates and fewer professional educators in schools to fulfill said mandates.
Teachers are angry about the recent contract proposal that will result in lower take-home pay for almost all teachers, as they will have to bear the full burden of rising health care premiums. This set of conditions is weakening one of the most important institutions in our democracy and, without astute and visionary policy change, we will soon reach a point of no return within our public education system. Very soon, it will become impossible to recruit qualified and educated professionals to commit their lives to teaching our children in this state.
The teachers marched not just to protect the institution of public education, but also to protect the children educated and raised in those institutions. In HSTA’s “Schools Our Keiki Deserve” campaign—initiated last year—teachers came together to create a shared vision for the education of children of Hawaiʻi. This vision would redirect our educational focus to teaching the whole child and moving to a well-rounded approach to education. It would end the current overemphasis on testing that takes away so much from learning, from strengthening the arts, from cultural and physical education and from expanding vocational and career pathway programs.
Expressed in 2016 HSTA omnibus legislation, through the HSTA contract proposal package and with 2017 legislative proposals, the approach to public education advocated for by the teachers’ union seeks to provide equity for all our students by cooling overheated classrooms, reducing workloads for Special Education teachers, eliminating the unfair teacher evaluation system, boosting budgets for remote schools and improving school facilities—including those at charter schools.
The teachers’ union, working with concerned parents, community members and students, calls for fully funding our public schools to lower class size, implementing public preschool and paying teachers professionally. When more than 6,000 teachers marched with their community to rally at the Capitol, they asserted their willingness to defend their profession, to protect the institution of public education in Hawaiʻi and to protect the children and families who depend on this institution.
Amy Perruso teaches social studies at Mililani High School and serves as HSTA State Secretary-Treasurer.