Hawaii’s public school system has been a hot button issue for several years, and many are speaking out to make things better.
So far, Governor David Ige has looked into effectively funding Hawaii public schools and pushed for an overhaul of Hawaii’s public preschool and elementary school system, and hopes to accomplish much more throughout his term.
“As a proud product of public schools, education created great opportunities for me that I would not have had otherwise,” Ige said in an interview with Honolulu Civil Beat. “Hawaii’s children deserve quality public education that provides an opportunity for all students to achieve their highest potential. Quality public education also creates a workforce with the skills and knowledge that are necessary for a strong economy.”
With such devotion to improving public schools, Ige has been working closely with Hawaii State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto and Hawaii State Teachers Association in order to make these things happen.
“My overall vision and what really drives me is that I am very passionate about and I hope that we can create a school system where our schools are all very unique,” Kishimoto said. “That when students go to their school, that they feel this great pride being there.”
Step by step, HSTA has been making improvements in the public school systems in Hawaii. Most recently, the Senate Ways and Means Committee approved a bill to increase the state’s general tax by a half-percent. Doing this will provide hundreds of millions of dollars a year in additional funding to schools, according to the HSTA website.
HSTA has been promoting teachers interests since 1971, and has made tremendous strides since then. Their mission is to support the professional roles of teachers, collaborate with the community to assure quality public education, and promote human and civil rights.
“When you are able to join together with 13,000 teachers, it creates a big voice in trying to improve education and we’re able to provide a quality contract for our teachers and protect worker rights,” Corey Rosenlee, HSTA president said. “I’m very proud that HSTA is the biggest advocate for public education for our students in Hawaii. We’re out there every day trying to make sure our schools are better. We don’t just teach in the classroom but we’re advocates as well.”
Rosenlee was a high school social studies teacher for 20 years and says he wanted to be a teacher since the third grade. Growing up with a mother as a teacher and a father as a professor, his household would try to make learning interesting. He took those tools from his childhood, and integrated them into his classroom and found that education was his true passion.
He has been HSTA president for around three and a half years, persistently working to find more ways to improve Hawaii schools.
“I was a teacher who was trying to create change for schools in Hawaii and I thought the best way to do that was to be president of HSTA so I decided to run,” Rosenlee said. “I think that education is one of the best ways to improve your life and every child should have access to a quality teacher. You can say that I wanted to change the world.”
Under Rosenlee and Kishimoto’s leadership, the association signed a contract giving teachers raises, and worked hard advocating for air conditioning in classrooms, reducing standardized testing, and improving teacher evaluations. However, they are still looking to do more.
“We are trying to open up a conversation around competitive teacher paying,” Kishimoto said. “That’s our number one. The second thing is really around building teacher leadership.”
Another area the organization is pushing for is recruiting qualified teachers.
“I’m hoping that students will choose to go into the [teaching] profession,” Rosenlee said. “Right now we have a shortage of over a thousand teachers in Hawaii, which means that many of us go to school day after day and don’t have qualified teachers.”
Part time teacher at Makalapa Elementary Gail Hadama has been a part of the union since its beginning and has been a part of a number of strikes to advocate for teachers fairness.
“It was very difficult to prove to other people that you’re a teacher and you’re special and you care for the kids. I think some people just thought of us as babysitters. It made us proud of our occupation. As teachers, and to be dignified as teachers, you have to support what you believe in. Because at stake was money, class size, and little things like not doing jobs that custodians do,” she said. “As a teacher, we should be teaching what we know. We shouldn’t be doctors, we shouldn’t be policemen.”
The union has helped to make changes, including giving teachers raises and health benefits.
While HSTA is working hard to improve the public school system for teachers and students on the islands, the future is ultimately up to the younger generation. It is important for them to learn about educational issues and how they can join forces to fight for rights.
“At the end of the day, our country spends a lot more on senior citizens than they do on children,” Rosenlee said. “The reason why is that senior citizens vote. Children have to become a political force, learn how to advocate, and if 18-25-year-olds voted as much as senior citizens did, we wouldn’t have to worry about under-funding of our schools because they’d already be funded.”
English teacher Andy Jones, a teacher for 25 years, has been an active member of HSTA and supports the teachers union with writing newspaper articles and letters, which led him to become Radford’s HSTA head representative.
“It was just sort of a natural step to take,” Jones said. “It seemed like I was the most natural person to step up at this school simply because I had been rather vocal in the last five or six years on teacher issues and education issues in general through the paper and through various things like speaking at board of education meetings as well as at the state legislature on various educational issues.”
Jones is impressed with HSTA’s actions resulting in better teachers. He said, “In maybe the last five years, our union in Hawaii has become very proactive in advocating for best research-based educational practices.”
It is essential that students recognize the work their teachers go through.
“There are so many reasons I’m passionate about education rights,” Alyssa Sunday (11) said. “My dad is an educator, a lot of my hanai aunties and uncles are educators as well, so I grew up knowing education is important and with that, education rights are important as well. Education is a human right.”
“I think the number one thing we can do as students to support our teachers is to appreciate them. Honestly, I know students favor more teachers than others, but some teachers do go above and beyond for their students,” she said. “They fight for our education so we need to appreciate them.”