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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 2, 2010

Constitutionally, education must be priority


By Evan R. Shirley and Michel A. Okazaki

Since statehood, the Constitution of the State of Hawai'i has mandated that "[t]he State shall provide for the establishment, support and control of a statewide system of public schools[.]"

Two generations ago, in 1968 to be specific, the Hawai'i Supreme Court, in Spears v. Honda, described in detail the purpose of Hawai'i's constitutional article on education. Although the issue in the case was not school furloughs, the court's own description of the importance of public education in Hawai'i holds true regardless of context:

• "The report [of] the Committee on Education ... is permeated with a strong recognition of the importance and unique function of public education in a democratic state."

• "The committee ... observed that it was acting in accordance with the will of the electorate of Hawai'i in placing major emphasis on public education through a separate article on that subject in the Constitution."

• "This emphasis on public education can be largely attributed to the fact that, at that time, nonpublic schools in this jurisdiction were considered better able to provide education than public schools, although the latter had shouldered the burden of educating the bulk of the populace ... despite somewhat shabby treatment by the Legislature."

Four years after Spears, the U.S. Supreme Court itself declared that "providing public schools ranks at the very apex of the function of a state." Other states have provisions in their constitutions that are similar to that in the Hawai'i Constitution, and many of those states have judicial opinions recognizing a constitutional right to an adequate public education.

When the governor and our legislators assumed their respective offices they took an oath to "support and defend ... the Constitution of the State of Hawai'i."

It now appears that our elected leaders are shirking their constitutional responsibilities even while they profess the importance of education. Admittedly these are difficult times, but the Hawai'i Constitution was designed to protect rights at all times.

As reflected in the 1968 Spears decision, a goal of Hawai'i's constitutional emphasis on education was to end the relative neglect of public schools vis-[0xe0]-vis the private schools, a condition attributed, in part, to high private school attendance.

The Spears court lamented that "the gap in the quality of education provided by public schools and the quality of education provided by private schools is still reflected today in the ratings given to the various high schools in the state."

Ironically, in a nationwide "rating" released last Dec. 9, U.S. News & World Report placed Hawai'i as tied for last place with two other states for having the lowest-ranked public high schools in the country. Just a few months ago, The Associated Press reported that the military has retained researchers from Johns Hopkins University to study negative military attitudes toward Hawai'i's public schools.

Despite the crying need for improvement, Hawai'i now has the most abbreviated school year in the country at 163 days and each day is a relatively short one.

The speed at which the constitutional rights of about 15 percent of Hawai'i's population are adversely affected is alarming, especially since nearly all are ineligible to vote.

School furloughs hardly comport with the constitutional underpinnings of public education in Hawai'i. Arguments that the system first needs to be improved cannot be an excuse for inaction.

The state budget before the Legislature contains $10 billion in state spending but our elected leaders cannot find less than 1 percent of that amount to restore the school calendar. This travesty has continued long enough. Our leaders need to live up to the constitutional requirement of supporting the statewide system of public schools. The first way to do that is to put the kids back in school.