Constitutional change can help create ‘kingdom of learning’

This is an Op-Ed written by HSTA Vice President Justin Hughey that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser May 22, 2018

Do we really want to open that genie bottle?, a columnist recently asked regarding the proposed constitutional amendment for a “school tax” on non-owner-occupant, investment homes. My answer is YES — a genie would grant us the three wishes against problems we desperately have been trying to solve since 1911: meager funding, too few teachers and dilapidated buildings.

King Kamehameha III said, “Chiefs and people, give ear to my remarks! My kingdom shall be a kingdom of learning.” He believed that education was very important, that it would prepare his people for the changes taking place in Hawaii. Unfortunately, his vision has diminished, as Department of Education statistics reveal:

>> Native Hawaiian public school students are more likely to have inexperienced, unqualified and out-of-field teachers.

>> Hawaii is 48th out of 52 in the nation for eighth-grade NAEP reading scores.

>> Only 14 percent of Native Hawaiians complete post-secondary education/training.

Why is it that Hawaii’s public education spending, as a share of combined state and local government spending, is the lowest in the country? The Big Five plantation owners created an unequal educational system by design. They sent their kids to private schools and never wanted the plantation workers kids to receive anything more than a fourth-grade education. It is my opinion that over the decades, most of our elected officials perpetuated the system, because the vast majority sent their kids to private school.

My first wish is that we end meager funding. Our weighted student formula is a great idea for equity but it is not funded properly. If we fund our public education appropriately by passing the constitutional amendment, having every school in the state funded adequately and equally would establish the most progressive statewide public educational system in the country.

My second wish is that we put an end to the teacher shortage. The public schools have some great teachers — but unfortunately, every child does not have a great teacher, or even a certified teacher. We have started the last two school years with upwards of 1,600 teacher vacancies. My principal always tells me that he is only as good as the list of teachers he can hire from. Sometimes the list is blank. Many of those openings are filled with substitutes or emergency hires with only a high school diploma.

My third wish is that we put an end to dilapidated school buildings. I teach at King Kamehameha III Elementary School, where 10 years ago, the ceiling had holes in it. The students were getting rained on in class, and soaked ceiling tiles were actually falling on them. I wrote a letter to the editor about it to The Maui News, calling out former Gov. Linda Lingle for not releasing education funding approved by the Legislature. New roofing was installed six months later.

I applaud our leaders in the Legislature for passing Senate Bill 2922, the proposed amendment to Hawaii’s Constitution that would give legislators the power to impose a real property tax surcharge on investment properties, not on hard-working families who own residential properties. Here on Maui, investors and vacation home owners hold over 60 percent of condominiums and apartments, and 52 percent of homes are sold to non-residents. Real-estate speculators and rich non-resident homeowners can afford to help educate our keiki.

The good news is we don’t have to go around rubbing bottles, hoping for miracles that only exist in fairy tales. A solution to these problems is the proposed constitutional amendment, in which voters will decide if every other child in Hawaii will receive a quality public school education. Vote yes — and together we will finally provide King Kamehameha III’s “kingdom of learning.”

Justin Hughey is a teacher at King Kamehameha III Elementary School teacher and HSTA vice president.