After Hawaiian language immersion ruling, fate of Lanai schools still uncertain

HILO — The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the state Constitution requires that students be provided access to Hawaiian language immersion education.

Justices on the court ruled 4-1 in support of Chelsa-Marie Kealohalani Clarabal, a Lanai mother whose children only had access to intermittent lessons taught in Hawaiian after moving from Maui to Lanai.

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Although there are Hawaiian immersion public schools on five of the major islands, there are none on Lanai, which the court ruled was in contradiction to constitutional amendments made in 1978 that obligated the state to provide for public Hawaiian education programs.

Clarabal, represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, sued the state Department of Education and Board of Education in 2014, to which the DOE and board responded by arguing that supplemental Hawaiian language and history classes are sufficient to revive the language, thus fulfilling its constitutional mandate.

The state Supreme Court disagreed Tuesday.

“We hold that the Hawaiian education provision was intended to require the state to institute a program that is reasonably calculated to revive the Hawaiian language,” wrote Justice Richard Pollack for the majority. “Because the uncontroverted evidence in the record demonstrates that providing reasonable access to Hawaiian immersion education is currently essential to reviving the Hawaiian language, it is a necessary component of any program that is reasonably calculated to achieve that goal.”

Justice Paula Nakayama wrote a partial dissent, arguing that the language used by the framers of the 1978 amendments does not indicate the state should be required to provide such programs.

“It is truly a blessing to have been able to bring this case for not only my daughters but for all of the families on Lanai,” Clarabal said in a statement. “We were all created as counterparts. Fairness and equality for Lanai is what we strived to achieve.”

The case will now return to the lower court to determine whether the state made “all reasonable efforts” to provide Clarabal’s daughters access to immersion programs.

There are 17 Hawaiian language immersion programs operated by the DOE throughout the state, with six operating as charter schools on all major islands save Lanai. It is not clear how the ruling will affect programs on islands other than Lanai.

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The Department of Education declined to comment on the issue, merely issuing the statement: “This is still an active case. The department remains deeply committed to our Kaiapuni (Hawaiian immersion) program.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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