Kamehameha policy awakens emotional issue
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
A decision to admit a non-Native Hawaiian child to the Kamehameha Schools' campus on Maui has turned the spotlight on admissions standards and rekindled a debate on whether the campuses should serve the academic elite or a broader spectrum of the Native Hawaiian community.
As Kamehameha Schools officials defended their decision yesterday, some alumni and former trustees said they were blindsided by the first admission of a non-Hawaiian applicant to the schools since 1962.
Kamehameha Schools admitted 10.9 percent of all applicants in the 2000-2001 school year and has been criticized regularly for not serving more children.
Hamilton McCubbin, chief executive officer of Kamehameha Schools, said the offer to a student to attend the Maui campus in the fall does not reflect a sea change in admissions policy.
But others called it a monumental move that is bound to bring forward a mixture of feelings and a flurry of questions about just how much community input plays a role in decision-making at the $6 billion estate of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Alumni will meet Monday night at the Kapalama campus to discuss the issue. This weekend, trustees will attend a retreat on admissions procedures.
"People are so upset," said Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. "We have so many kids who are in terrible educational situations. I don't mind them serving non-Hawaiian students, but take care of Hawaiians first."
Parents and alumni have flooded Kamehameha Schools' phone lines and e-mail since the decision was made public Thursday. McCubbin said trustees recognize the frustration of families who have been turned away from the schools. But trustees can't change policy without the agreement of the probate court and the public.
"How broad can we make admissions? Do we only take the best and brightest or do we broaden the base of more and more Native Hawaiians?" McCubbin said. "Secondly, what can we do for the (Department of Education) system where most of the kids come from?"
Kamehameha Schools held public meetings and had a print advertising campaign to encourage applications, but Kame'eleihiwa said Maui families did not have enough information on application procedures and the expansion of the campus from 176 students to an anticipated 592 next year.
Marsha Bolson, director of communications at Kamehameha Schools, said that while the estate has 30 educational programs ranging from summer school to preschool, many of which are open to non-Hawaiians, the three campuses on O'ahu, Maui and the Big Island garner the most attention because they are the most prestigious and intense of the estate's programs.
"This is such an emotional issue," Bolson said. "People have really personalized this issue. It doesn't matter that it was one space in the eighth-grade on one campus. Every student who was ever turned down is upset."
Jan Dill and Roy Benham, active Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association members who serve on the CEO's Advisory Board, said the decision was a surprise to them.
"This is a momentous shift in policy, and it's unfortunate that there hasn't been significant preparation and consultation with the alumni and advisory board," Dill said. "I don't fault the trustees and administration for making the decision because I assume they have good reasons. But I have a problem with the process. We have 17,000 alumni and constituents that were not included in the process who haven't heard the reasons why the decision was made. This kind of management culture has to change."
Benham, meanwhile, received e-mail Thursday announcing the decision. The advisory board was not even told there might be an admissions shortfall on Maui, he said.
"It was not explained, and I'm disturbed we were not made aware of the possibility because the action had to be approved by the trustees," said Benham, immediate past president of the alumni association. "I'm very disappointed they could not come up with some process to accommodate a child who did not meet the criteria. I cannot see how the criteria couldn't have been adjusted to meet the needs of the student who just missed making it."
Toni Lee, the alumni association president, said the alumni meeting is scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Kalama dining room. "I've had a lot of calls, and it's been a little more negative than positive," Lee said. "But I think it's only fair that we should hear all the facts before doing anything reactionary."
A tax status issue?
Kamehameha Schools was swept up in bitter controversy that erupted in 1997 after a protest march by students, parents and alumni over how the schools were being managed. After investigations by the state attorney general's office and the Internal Revenue Service, the trustees were ultimately replaced.
One of the key allegations was that trustees had manipulated the schools' admissions process.
Since then, the estate has reorganized, made efforts to hold more community meetings, tried to broaden its reach with a preschool initiative expected to reach thousands more students, and plans to transform some public schools into charter schools.
McCubbin said the schools give preference to Hawaiians, but that when all the accepted applicants of Hawaiian ancestry meeting the admissions criteria have been exhausted, qualified non-Hawaiian applicants may be considered for admittance on a space-available basis.
Trustees in the 1930s allowed some non-Hawaiian students to attend the campus, and from 1946 to 1966 admission of non-Hawaiians was limited to children of teachers.
Clayton Hee, an Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and Kamehameha graduate, said many children meet admission criteria. But Hee said admitting a non-Hawaiian student may be a strategy for Kamehameha Schools to keep its tax status unchallenged while it has a race-based admissions policy.
"Kamehameha Schools enjoys a tax status that is underwritten by 99.9 percent of every American in all 50 states, and that tax status is worth hundreds of millions of dollars," Hee said. "Admitting only Hawaiians is a problem as long as Kamehameha is enjoying the tax status."
Hee noted that Saint Louis School and Iolani have similar tax benefits, but the preference for Hawaiian admission policy makes Kamehameha different. "Saint Louis is Catholic and Iolani is tied to the Episcopal Church," Hee explained. "But both schools admit students, whether they are Catholic or Episcopalian."
Admission to Kamehameha Schools is highly competitive and coveted, both for the quality of the education and the low cost of tuition. Parents pay only about $1,000 a year for tuition, fees and lunch for elementary students, or about 10 percent of the actual cost, and about $1,400 in tuition and fees for high school students.
But admission has proven elusive for most.
In choosing only a small pool of the state's top applicants, Kamehameha trustees built an academically solid institution but one that also has come to be perceived as one of Hawai'i's most exclusive schools.
"Kamehameha seeks only the most highly motivated students who have demonstrated above-average academic potential and a genuine enthusiasm for learning," according to the schools' promotional materials. "Most students accepted have scores between the 70th and 99th percentiles on standardized tests."
Most of the incoming ninth-graders have grade point averages of 3.5 or higher.
Depending on their age, children submit an application form, transcripts, school and teacher references, an ethnic ancestry form, writing samples and are interviewed by teachers or take a standardized test. All children are ranked by a panel.
Indigent children and orphans receive preference, under the language of the will.
The Bishop Estate was established in the 1884 will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, who sought to create a perpetual, private, charitable trust to run Kamehameha Schools for children of Hawaiian ancestry.
Estate trustees have steadily defended the school's mission in the face of challenges to its Hawaiians-only admission policy, arguing that children of all racial or ethnic backgrounds are allowed to apply as long as they have at least one Hawaiian ancestor.
In 1997, Big Island cattle rancher Harold "Freddy" Rice challenged the admission policy with two federal lawsuits. One challenged the policy as a violation of constitutional civil rights.
The other was filed against the Internal Revenue Service and charged that the policy violates tax laws. Rice's attorney voluntarily withdrew both suits because he did not have the money to proceed with the cases.
Later, the IRS looked into whether the school's admission policy violated tax laws and compromised the estate's tax-exempt status. But in 1999, it upheld its 1975 position that Kamehameha Schools' policy was not discriminatory and reaffirmed the estate's tax-exempt status.
Staff writers Kapono Dowson, Rod Ohira, Timothy Hurley and Walter Wright contributed to this report.