Funding Public Education Can Change Our Destiny

The status quo — overcrowded classrooms, a shortage of permanent teachers, turnover and burnout — is no longer acceptable.

May 14, 2018

Today’s Hawaii public school students are tomorrow’s residents, voters, employees, consumers…but the way things are going, they won’t be residents of Hawaii.

With high and rising cost of housing, limited employment opportunities and challenges the public school system currently lacks the resources to address, they will have no choice and no chance to live where they grew up.

But it’s not too late to change that destiny. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” we can change the future by changing the present. Public education can and should be part of the solution.

Hawaii public school students routinely attend overcrowded classes. They generally have an insufficient number of outdated textbooks. Their choice of language classes, vocational and career technical classes, and arts and music classes is almost always sharply limited.

Many attend small or remote schools that lack basics like a library or on-campus counselors, and that can’t comfortably offer field trips or other enrichment experiences. Almost all of them have at least some teachers who are burned out by the necessity of working multiple jobs to survive.

Many attend at least some classes without a teacher trained in the subject taught. Despite the incredible efforts of dedicated teachers, our keiki are not receiving the 21st century education they need in order to be competitive in the Hawaii job market — they may not be able to stay in the only home they know (or not without working three soul-killing jobs just to survive).

We’re 45th In Per-Pupil Funding!

A significant part of the problem is (under)funding. The Hawaii school system:

  • spends a lower percentage of state and local funds than on public education any other state (cost-adjusted);
  • is lower than 44 other states in per-pupil funding (we’re 45th! we’re 45th!);
  • pays teachers less than any other state in the nation (adjusted for cost of living); and
  • has an ongoing acute teacher shortage, with over 1,000 positions unfilled in 2017-2018.

If underfunding is part of the problem, better funding is part of the solution. Granted, money is not a “silver bullet” that will fix everything; money is more like irrigation water. Water is one limiting factor in crop cultivation, while funding is one limiting factor in public education.

If farmers want to grow more crops, they need to secure more water; if we want to address shortcomings in public education, we need to secure more money. That isn’t allwe have to do, but we have to do this.

Money is not a “silver bullet” that will fix everything; money is more like irrigation water.

Meanwhile, local families are struggling — struggling just to stay, struggling to survive — because of the high cost of living and in particular the high cost of housing. In the last 15 years, house prices have doubled, while townhome prices have tripled. Low property tax rates lead to high home and land prices, as Civil Beat reported in 2016 (Living Hawaii: Our Surprising Property Tax Poison).

Our low property taxes benefit investors and speculators far more than they do resident homeowners or renters. Fifty-two percent of Maui homes were sold to nonresident buyers, and one in 10 Kauai homes is a vacation rental. With the lowest property tax rates in the country, Hawaii really is paradise…for real estate speculators and investors. Nearly one third of all property taxes are paid by non-residents, who are not losing money.

The November ballot includes a proposed constitutional amendment to give the state the power “to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education.”

Should the amendment pass, the intent of the Legislature, as indicated by committee reports, is to impose this surcharge on residential investment properties, to protect owner-occupants and their exemptions while taxing second and third homes (worth $1 million or more) at a somewhat higher rate.

We as voters have the power and the responsibility to ensure that Hawaii public schools receive the funding necessary to support “Schools Our Keiki Deserve” by voting for the amendment and then working with legislators to ensure that the enabling legislation works for public schools and working families, rather than rich investors and corporations.

Do we want better schools for our keiki? I do. We can do something to make better schools happen. We can get involved, we can vote our conscience, we can hold our legislators accountable, we can make our voices heard.

What we can’t do — at least not if we want better schools — is nothing. “Nothing” is the status quo: overcrowded classrooms, a shortage of permanent teachers, teacher turnover, teacher burnout, textbook deficiencies, equipment and supply shortages, limited services and offerings. “Nothing” gets nothing, and keiki are shortchanged. Is that right?


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