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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

Kamehameha Schools' policy advocates social justice

By Trustees of Kamehameha Schools

The Kamehameha Schools made headlines last week when a federal judge instructed us to enroll a student who was admitted under our policy of giving admissions preference to Hawaiian applicants, but whose admission was rescinded when we learned that the documents submitted to verify his ancestry were inaccurate.

The student's mother has filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn as racially discriminatory the very preference she sought for her son during the application process.

The judge was careful to point out that he was not ruling on the legality of our 116-year-old preference policy; that this was a narrow ruling on a single, isolated case. In a legal sense, that's true. But the passionate reaction from our alumni and supporters demonstrates that in an emotional sense, this ruling is not narrow at all.

We don't condone the rhetoric directed at the plaintiff in this case, or anyone who challenges our policy, but we understand the anger behind it. Whether legal challenges seek to admit a single student or to strike down our preference policy entirely, they drain our resources and make us vulnerable to a system that may not understand what Kamehameha Schools means to our children, our culture, our community and our future.

We would like everyone to understand why our preference policy is legal and justifiable. Defining this as a "racial" contest — Hawaiians vs. non-Hawaiians — misses the point. This is really about protecting an institution that was founded to improve the capability and well-being of an indigenous people who had suffered greatly in their once-sovereign homeland.

It is about recognizing and correcting the results of past wrongs, and building a stronger future for the entire state. It is about social justice.

When Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop died in 1884, she had seen the suffering of her people. When Capt. James Cook arrived in 1778, Hawai'i was a nation of strong and accomplished people with a population estimated as high as 800,000. At the time of Pauahi's death, the Hawaiian population had dwindled to only 40,000, largely because of diseases introduced by Western contact.

Hawaiians were impoverished and poorly educated. They had lost their land, and were losing their language, their culture and their pride. Princess Pauahi understood the value of education and she envisioned the Kamehameha Schools as the way to restore the capability and well-being of her people.

Through her will, she gave her wealth for that purpose.

For 116 years, the Kamehameha Schools have worked to fulfill that mission, and we have become a leader in education. We serve more than 16,000 children, through our campus programs, educational outreach, community efforts and scholarships.

Our campuses can accommodate only a fraction of the Hawaiian children we wish to educate. Because 87 percent of Hawaiian children are students in the public schools system, we have established collaborations with public schools and early childhood education providers in predominantly Hawaiian communities.

Many Kamehameha Schools graduates have distinguished themselves as leaders in all areas of society — in government, the military, business, health, education and culture.

However, there is still work to be done. Consider these statistics:

• In 2000, Hawaiian children in our public schools scored 11 percentage points below their non-Hawaiian public school classmates on reading tests.

• About one in five Hawaiian high school students are held back a grade.

• Nearly 23 percent of working Hawaiians hold managerial and professional positions, compared to 34 percent of the non-Hawaiian work force.

• The statewide unemployment rate for Hawaiians is 9.8 percent, compared to 5.8 percent for non-Hawaiians.

• Nearly half — 40 percent — of the adults in prison here identify themselves as Hawaiian.

• Hawaiians make up 19 percent of the state population, but account for 39 percent of the people in shelters for the homeless.

• Forty-seven percent of the children in shelters for the homeless are Hawaiian.

• The poverty rate for Hawaiian families is more than twice that of non-Hawaiian families.

• Hawaiians have the highest death and sickness rate of any major ethnic group in Hawai'i.

At Kamehameha Schools, we use our own resources to heal our people. Isn't it better to allow a Hawaiian institution to rebuild pride and strength rather than rely on government to do it?

We provide academic education for children who will then use that knowledge to provide better lives for their families, who in turn help build communities. We provide cultural education that reconnects our children with the values of respect and sharing that guided their ancestors, and builds their pride and sense of dignity, which works to reawaken and build upon the innate strengths of their cultural foundation.

This is how we improve the capability and well-being of the Hawaiian people, and how we improve the well-being of society as a whole, and contribute to a better future for Hawai'i.

If Kamehameha Schools' preference policy is overturned, we will no longer be able to fulfill our mission to improve the capability and well-being of people of Hawaiian ancestry. We will be like any other private school in Hawai'i. Who will help our people then?

Our policy has never been Hawaiians-only. We've always sought to address the educational needs of Hawaiians first. It must remain that way until Hawaiians are leading in scholastic achievement, until they are underrepresented in prisons and homeless shelters, until their well-being is restored.

Our preference policy is legally justifiable and it is right. We are not blocking the schoolhouse door; we are holding it open for the children who need it most.

We will vigorously defend our right to do so.

The trustees of the Kamehameha Schools are Constance Lau, Nainoa Thompson, J. Douglas Ing, Robert Kihune and Diane Plotts. Colleen Wong is acting chief executive.