Gov.’s address draws praise, raises questions

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KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii’s political spotlight settled firmly on Gov. David Ige Monday, as he delivered the 2017 State of the State Address on Oahu.

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KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii’s political spotlight settled firmly on Gov. David Ige Monday, as he delivered the 2017 State of the State Address on Oahu.

The governor touched on several topics of import, focusing heavily on improving Hawaii’s public education system, what he continued to refer to as the “crisis” of homelessness, and general guidelines for spurring the “next great economic transformation” in the state.

“I appreciated the governor’s focus on homelessness, which is a priority for me as human services chair,” said Sen. Josh Green, who represents Kona and Ka’u. “So I give the him good grades on the speech. I thought he did a good job, and I do think he touched on most of the relevant issues of our day.”

Green, who is considering a possible run either for governor or lieutenant governor in the next election, did mention a few omissions he’d liked to have seen included.

Gun control, decriminalization of marijuana and health care reform were chief among them.

“There was no mention of our health care system, and we do need a health care renaissance for our public health care safety net. Without that safety net and a vibrant HHSC system, plus our private hospitals, it’ll be impossible for people to come and stay and live in Hawaii.” said Green, who is a physician as well as a legislator. “I thought he did a good job, but I would have started and ended with homelessness, living wage, affordable housing and health care for all.”

Green also mentioned his appreciation for Ige’s focus on overhauling the education system. What can be achieved in that area and how it can be achieved, however, is a matter of debate.

Ige hit the concept of innovation hard in his remarks, but Justin Brown, the career and technical education program coordinator at Kealakehe High School, said politicizing education often leads to the use of such buzzwords, which are typically ill-defined in terms of policy.

Real innovation and real change in an education system requires time and patience, he said, two things many politicians and their constituents are often short on.

However, Brown did acknowledge Ige finds himself in a unique position to spur real change to the system.

“With the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act), governors everywhere have the opportunity to be involved in education in ways that they’ve never been before, and so I think it’s kind of a new position in Hawaii for the governor to be playing this role,” Brown explained. “But, I think things that speak well politically are things that have an immediate impact. The things that work in education don’t have immediate impact.”

Brown, who started and runs the nationally prominent robotics team at Kealakehe as well as its Model United Nations team, said the greatest impact Ige could achieve would come in the form of changing not only the processes of how teachers become “qualified” to teach in Hawaii’s classrooms, but how the state actually defines the term.

That begins, he said, with the next contract the state will strike with its teacher’s union, which must include an emphasis on “quality” educators over “qualified” educators.

“The contract can set up a lot of burdens to the types of creative, school-based things that would move kids forward. My fear is the contract negotiation is just going to protect status quo,” Brown said. “What’s going to come out of this new contract, I think, will be a big indicator of how much innovation we have in there. We now have the ability to determine what type of people we want in the classroom.”

He said when one compares the facilities at a school like Hawaii Preparatory Academy — a private institution on Hawaii Island — to Department of Education facilities here, it makes a substantial statement to students about how much their education is valued. And as it stands now, that statement isn’t all that positive.

He added he’d like to see a focus on incentivizing academic teams — like his robotics group, which is entirely self-funded — the same way athletic teams are prioritized by the DOE.

It’s there, he said, that the greatest examples of educational innovation exist, where teaching students to succeed in a changing, more tech-focused economy really occurs on a meaningful level.

Without that focus, those programs will disappear, and there’s nothing Brown sees currently in the DOE’s pipeline valuable enough to the governor’s stated initiatives to replace them.

“No one is going to disagree with innovation. No one is going to disagree with kids learning at a higher level,” Brown said. “The question is how do you implement that when you have 250 schools around the state, all of which have principals who believe they can take their school in best direction? Some of them might be right. I know some of them are very, very wrong.”

Ige acknowledged the challenges facing Hawaii, from education to homelessness, are stark. But he also expressed excitement about the state’s prospects for the future.

Economically, Ige spoke of developing new clean energy and agricultural technologies, which won’t only help to protect Hawaii’s environment and provide sustainability, but will allow its native sons and daughters the chance to stay and make financially productive lives here.

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Green agreed, but said more immediate thinking and solutions must also be applied to help alleviate the most pressing economic concerns facing the state.

“You have to have those kind of aspirational plans, which will yield benefit and reward 10 to 20 years later. They’re good goals,” Green said. “But if you want to transform society (more immediately), you make housing more affordable and increase the living wage. Then things change very quickly because everyone can get an education and grow from there.”

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