Fight for education funding must continue

  • Jeanne Kapela

Our keiki are our future.

While the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the proposed constitutional amendment to increase public education funding by taxing investment properties, the fight to improve school financing must move forward. Now, lawmakers who say they are committed to supporting teachers and students must turn their words into legislative action.

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The framers of the United States Constitution recognized that education is the foundation of democracy. In the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson said, “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.” Likewise, James Madison noted, “Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.”

Today, though, we are witnessing the political fallout from a beleaguered education system. At a time when critical thinking skills are needed to counter accusations of “fake news,” children are being left unprepared for life in the Information Age because their classrooms lack adequate resources and, in many cases, qualified educators.

Our state’s teacher shortage has climbed to over 1,000 vacancies, leaving students to be taught by inexperienced substitutes and emergency hires. In turn, statewide academic achievement is lagging. Hawaii ranks 47th in the nation in ninth grade to college completion. Native Hawaiian keiki are even more disadvantaged than their peers, with only 14 percent of Hawaiian learners completing post-secondary education or vocational training.

To chart a new course for our school system, policymakers have an obligation to examine options to increase school funding. Numerous possibilities exist to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for education without shortchanging the pocketbooks of working families.

To begin, lawmakers could consider raising income taxes on our state’s highest earners. According to a report compiled for the 2017 Hawaii Tax Review Commission by PFM Consulting, phasing out lower tax brackets for those who earn over $100,000 would generate an estimated $223.8 million in 2019 and over $250 million by 2022. Known as “rate recapture,” this proposal would not only increase revenue for schools, but begin to rebalance our state’s tax code, which disproportionately impacts the working poor.

Similarly, increasing the corporate income tax rate to a flat 9 percent would generate $173 million by 2020, per PFM’s analysis. Given that Hawaii’s tourism industry logged a record $16.8 billion in visitor spending in 2017 and local business profits are surging according to a survey of company leaders conducted this year by Anthology Market Group, it’s reasonable to ask businesses to pay a little more to help the schools that train their future employees.

Moreover, elected officials could hear proposals that simultaneously enhance education funding and address other challenges facing our island home. Establishing a carbon tax on major fossil fuel emitters would generate up to $365 million, according to a Brookings Institute study, while advancing Hawaii’s efforts to curb the effects of climate change. Legalizing recreational marijuana, meanwhile, would create millions in new revenue and lower criminal justice costs by ending the criminalization of low-level drug offenses.

Finally, legislators could rewrite the property tax ballot question to satisfy the Supreme Court’s ruling. Justices found the question to be unclear, likely because of a lack of specificity about the kind of property that would be subject to the new surcharge. Earlier versions of the ballot initiative precisely defined the scope of the tax, however, and could be reintroduced next year and placed on the ballot in 2020.

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Since the Court has issued its ruling, all alternatives are on the table. We, as a community, must contemplate these choices carefully and come together to deliver the schools our keiki deserve.

Jeanne Kapela is executive director of UNITE Hawaii.