DOE Has A Constitutional Duty To Provide Immersion And Cultural Programs

In Clarabal v. State, the Hawaii Supreme Court recognized that the state is “constitutionally required to make all reasonable efforts to provide access to Hawaiian immersion education.”

In other words, if the state is only making some efforts, and not all reasonable efforts, to increase access to Hawaiian immersion education, then it is failing to fulfill its obligations under the law. The affirmative duty recognized by the court is also specific to immersion education, meaning that other Hawaiian cultural programs, while necessary in their own right, cannot replace immersion learning to fulfill this legal obligation.

In Clarabal, the court went on to explain that “reasonable access is dependent on the totality of the circumstances,” which leads us to look at the daily life of immersion students who live in the Hawaii Department of Education’s Leeward District, made up of Waianae , Nanakuli, Kapolei, Ewa, Waipahu, and Pearl City.

Ka Papahana Kaiapuni is the DOE’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program for grades K-12. This program includes primary (grades K-6) and secondary (grades 7-12) schools across the state. Notably, KPK’s Ke Kula Kaiapuni ʻo Ānuenue in Palolo and Ke Kula ʻo Samuel M. Kamakau Laboratory Public Charter School in Kaneohe are the only current K-12 immersion schools on the island of Oahu, with expanded immersion programs currently being developed in Windward District, starting at Kailua High School this year and at Castle High School next year.

As a result of limited access in their own communities, Leeward District students make up 39% of the students at Ke Kula Kaiapuni ʻo Ānuenue in Honolulu District.

There are currently no immersion options in the Central District, and the only immersion options for West Oahu are at Nānākuli Elementary School (grades K-6), Waiau Elementary School (grades K-6), and Ka Papahana o Māʻilikūkahi (grades K- 8).

Even with these three options in West Oahu, however, families are then left having to choose between attending immersion programs in other communities or leaving immersion education to finish high school at an English medium school. Imagine having to wake up to catch the school bus from Waianae at 5:45 am to town, and after spending two hours and 15 minutes in morning traffic, arriving just in time to make it to oli at 8 am

Students must then sit in traffic again to get home in the afternoon. Moreover, with limited options for grades 7-12, many Leeward District families opt to send their children to other public schools in the area that do not offer immersion programs, in lieu of pursuing an immersion education for grades 7-12.

‘Reasonable Access’

Even though Leeward District is home to the largest number of Native Hawaiian students, this is the life for many families on the westside of Oahu. But is this reasonable access?

As an affirmative duty, the DOE has an obligation to provide meaningful opportunities for Leeward Oahu’s Native Hawaiian students. It would seem that the lack of access is not reasonable when the burdens that these students face are weighed against the fact that a K-12 immersion program could be feasible, particularly in the Nanakuli Valley if Nanakuli High and Intermediate School continued where Nanakuli Elementary left off and created immersion for grades 7-12.

A still from a video on the DOE's Kaiapuni schools — Hawaiian language immersion program website.
A still from a video on the DOE’s Kaiapuni school’s Hawaiian language immersion program website. Screenshot/2022

In Clarabal, not only did the court recognize that the undisputed evidence demonstrated that “reasonable access to a Hawaiian immersion program in public schools is necessary to the revival of ‘ōlelo Hawai’i,” but the court also cited a traditional Hawaiian proverb popularized during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, “E ola mau ka ‘ōlelo Hawai’i,” often translated as “the Hawaiian language must live on.”

Suppose the state is truly committed to revitalizing ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi and fulfilling its constitutional obligations to ensure that ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi lives on. In that case, it should dramatically expand access to Hawaiian immersion programs, particularly on Oahu’s Leeward Coast.

Expansion of immersion access should not be used to undermine or cut non-immersion Hawaiian programs.

It is also incumbent upon the state to uphold all rights afforded Hawaii residents in the state constitution and not use the recognition of one right to diminish the protection of others.

In other words, the expansion of immersion access should not be used to undermine or cut non-immersion Hawaiian programs that benefit all DOE students.

Article X, Section 4 of the Hawaii Constitution notes that “[t]the State shall provide for a Hawaiian education program consisting of language, culture, and history in the public schools.”

While the court in Clarabal recognized the role of immersion programs in revitalizing ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, the same Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1978 that the court relied on also recognizes that Article X, Section 4 “is intended to thereby insure the general diffusion of Hawaiian history on a wider basis, to recognize and preserve the Hawaiian culture which has contributed to, and in many ways forms the basis and foundation of, modern Hawaii.”

Thus, the state must employ all reasonable efforts to provide access to both immersion and other Hawaiian programs for HIDOE students; it cannot be a choice of one over the other.

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