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More demand for ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi education sparks discussion on the state's constitutional duty

Hawaiian language immersion program at Kailua High School
Hawaiʻi Department of Education
Hawaiian language immersion program at Kailua High School

Thousands of public school students are back on campus this week, including a growing number of Hawaiian language immersion students. Increasing demand is sparking conversations around the state’s constitutional duty to provide access to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, or Hawaiian language education.

It’s been three years since the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled that the state has a constitutional duty to provide immersion education.

The case involved Chelsa-Marie Kealohalani Clarabal. She wanted an immersion education for her daughters on Lānaʻi where there was no such program.

"The legal landscape at the time was there was no case law that we could cite," said Honolulu attorney Sharla Manley who represents the Clarabal ʻohana.

"There were three provisions of the state constitution – one being the official languages provision, the other provision being the Hawaiian education provision and thereʻs the provision for traditional and customary practices," Manley told HPR.

But no court had enforced any of these provisions when it came to ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi until the Clarabal case.

"What the Clarabal opinion does is it says, 'You’re not gonna go out there and measure if a community is ready. This is a right enshrined in the constitution and the state has a duty to provide at minimum a kaiapuni program.' So this is something that can expand in the future. It’s not saying this is the ceiling, it’s saying this is the floor," Manley said.

For Native Hawaiian educator Kalehua Krug, principal of Ka Waihona O Ka Na’auao Public Charter School, the Clarabal case validates the connection ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has to Hawaiian identity.

"Speaking our language is the tangible manifestation of a Hawaiian worldview and it was constructed by the kupuna on our land and it represents our beliefs, our values and our practices. When you say ‘ōlelo is important, you say everything that I just mentioned is important," Krug said.

But with more than 100 teaching vacancies at Hawaiian language immersion schools statewide, increasing access to a kaiapuni education requires institutional change, says Krug.

"What many of us are going to be proposing down the road is relooking at teacher qualifications and adequate staffing. It seems like we, the educational architects, are upholding this idea of quality when the community is saying quantity," Krug told HPR.

Krug says it's about returning kuleana back to the community. When he hears the mantra, “What are you going to do with an ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi education, become a teacher?”

His answer is "yes, please."

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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