HSTA wins in court: Teacher travel can resume

A Circuit Court judge Friday sided with the Hawaii State Teachers Association and threw out a state Ethics Commission opinion that found public school teachers who accepted free travel from tour companies in exchange for chaperoning educational trips risked violating the state ethics code.

“This is a victory for teachers, but most important, for Hawaii’s public school students,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “This decision means teachers can resume the worthwhile practice of taking our students on educational travel.”

HSTA attorney Colleen Hanabusa argued in court that the state Ethics Commission erred in not going through a rule-making process before issuing both an advisory opinion and guidance memo saying that teachers violated the ethics code by accepting “free trips” to accompany classes on educational travel. Judge Rhonda Nishimura ruled both the opinion and the memo are null and void. The judge also found the commission’s decision was subject to rule making, because it affected a broad group of teachers, students and others. More than 31 class trips statewide were canceled because of the ethics opinion and many others were not planned out for fear of violating the ethics code.

“HSTA is to be applauded for pursuing this case, because it has ramifications for so many students, teachers and others,” said Hanabusa. “For many public school students, these trips are their only chance to travel off their home island or out of state to learn about history, new cultures and other places.”

“To have the Ethics Commission unilaterally rule and imply that somehow teachers are unethical and taking an improper gift, I think is just wrong,” Hanabusa added. “I think the judge made it very clear that the commission can’t do that and they have to engage in rule making so that we all know what the ground rules are.”

In a decades-old practice that’s routine at public and private schools across the country, Hawaii public school teachers are given one free trip in exchange for every ten students who take educational trips. The teachers, who are not paid any salary for going on the trips, chaperone students, help plan the itineraries and create lesson plans tied in with travel destinations.

“It’s such a shame that these kids couldn’t take trips to Washington, D.C. or another country in this past year because there are so many other ways to learn beyond the classroom,” Rosenlee said. “These trips are invaluable and allow kids to experience the world. We are so happy these trips can begin again.”