Does Hawaii Make the Case for Religious Charters?

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The post-pandemic generation—to be dubbed, perhaps, the Coronials—wrestles with fears, emotional distress, and social isolation. Bullying, chronic absenteeism, dropping out, drug use, shoplifting, and even suicide are on the rise. Device-staring replaces people-watching. Independence, energy, and entrepreneurship seem in scarce supply. With the social world shaking beneath their feet, district school teachers and leaders are easing academic standards, recruiting social workers, and emphasizing social and emotional learning.

Few public educators are openly asking for divine help, but that, too, could change. The Texas legislature is considering legislation that would allow local districts to recruit chaplains to “provide support, services, and programs for students” in public schools. A charter authorizer in Oklahoma has given the go-ahead for opening an online Catholic charter school in 2024, invoking the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Carson v. Makin, that government funds may not be denied to religious entities if granted to secular ones. Still, the Sooner State is not the soonest to consider allowing religious instruction at a charter school. That honor belongs to Hawaii, where charter schools are seeking connections to the gods deeply embedded in Hawaiian culture and tradition.

This may come as a surprise to observers of Hawaii’s political alignments. Just as Hawaiian skies glow with a luminous blue (aouli), and its enveloping ocean gleams a darker hue (kai uli), state politics display a blue so deep we have yet to learn the equivalent Hawaiian word. Yet many public charter schools in the state are explicitly religious. For more than two decades, students at Hawaiian-focused schools have offered chants and prayers to the pantheon of gods who rule over skies, seas, and earth, including to the volcanic god, Pelehonuamea (“she who shapes the sacred land”), popularly known as Madam Pele.

Prayers begin the school day as part of protocol, a series of songs (mele), chants (oli), prayers (pule), and homilies (ōlelo noeau) reminiscent of morning chapel or classroom prayers at a Catholic or Evangelical Protestant school. Upon arrival, students declare their readiness to learn by requesting teacher permission to enter their classrooms. Embarrassed tardy students must chant a similar request before the assembled community.

On the occasion we visited one immersion charter school on the island of Hawaii—also known as the Big Island—boys and girls, neatly divided from one another, chanted their pule while standing perfectly erect, à la George W. Bush. (At the wish of the immersion schools we visited, we are not identifying the schools by name.) A class of 4th graders visiting from Maui, a bit less correct in posture, faced them at the door of the school throughout the 20-minute protocol, complete with chanted oli, ukulele-accompanied mele, and˛ōlelo delivered by faculty, students, and the school director on the importance of learning one’s heritage. The protocol was chanted in Hawaiian, as the curriculum at immersion charter schools is conveyed entirely in the indigenous tongue, even though nearly everyone on the islands speaks conventional English. That was the required language of instruction from the end of the 19th century, when the U.S. asserted its control over the islands, until 1986.

Gods make their presence felt on the Big Island, an isle so young it keeps growing. In late 2022, Mauna Loa erupted, pouring molten lava down the mountain for 16 miles, coming within striking distance of Saddle Road, the major thoroughfare between the island’s leeward and windward sides. In January 2023, Madam Pele’s home, Halema‘uma‘u, spewed fountains of lava 160 feet high, reminding everyone that in 2018 the volcano had poured forth a profusion of aā (stony lava) and pāhoehoe (smooth lava) that destroyed rain forests, roads, homes, and the Kua O Ka Lā charter school. Most recently, nearly 100 people lost their lives to wildfire on Maui’s dry side.

But why are students at charter schools reciting traditional prayers in Hawaiian? How did immersion charters emerge? How do their character-building practices, with their morning protocols, shape school culture and functioning? How do they survive in a state governed by a political party better known for its advocacy of strict separation between church and state?

We do not have all the answers. But one of us has studied and worked closely with the charter schools since they were founded. The other brings a mainland perspective enriched by brief visits to two charter schools that immerse students in the Hawaiian language and two that instruct students in English but are nonetheless infused with indigenous cultural traditions.

Students perform their morning wehena, or protocol, a practice of unifying hearts and minds and calling upon the wisdom of ancestors.
Students perform their morning wehena, or protocol, a practice of unifying hearts and minds and calling upon the wisdom of ancestors.

Hawaiian Renaissance

At the time when the earth became hot
At the time when the heavens turned about
At the time when the sun was darkened . . .
The intense darkness, the deep darkness
Darkness of the sun, darkness of the night
Nothing but night

So begins Kumulipo, the revered Hawaiian creation chant. “Nothing but night” expresses well the state of Hawaiian culture in 1970, about three-quarters of a century after Queen Lili‘uokalani surrendered her sacred lands to pro-American insurgents and the islands were annexed by the United States. To assimilate and acculturate a multiethnic population of Japanese, Chinese, and European immigrants, the government required that schools teach standard English, and the islands became celebrated as an integrationist nirvana. But the indigenous population paid a high price when asked to give up its language, the incubator and transmitter of so much of its cultural heritage. Attached to the land but resistant to work in the cane fields, native Hawaiians were pushed to the periphery, trailing all other ethnic groups in income, education, health, and longevity.

Then came the Hawaiian Renaissance of the late 20th century, when the indigenous population and its advocates acquired greater political influence. Protestors succeeded in convincing the U.S. Navy to give up the island of Kaho‘olawe, which the military once used for bombing and nuclear testing exercises. Farmers refused to make way for a large development in the Waiahole-Waikane valley in Oahu. Traditional Hawaiian songs and legends found their way into mainstream popular music. The law banning instruction in Hawaiian was repealed, and the language was finally offered in some of the islands’ public schools, typically as an additional subject for those who were interested. It was at immersion charter schools that the movement reached its fullest expression.


Immersion has a different meaning in Hawaii than it does at most bilingual charter schools on the mainland. At the latter, immersion consists of dual instruction in both English and the native tongue spoken at home by recently arrived newcomers. In Hawaii, immersion means instruction conducted only in the Hawaiian language, which is seldom spoken at home. The goal is not to open the door to the mainstream language but to sustain a heritage that has been pushed to the periphery.

One may wonder whether such immersion programs prepare young people for life and work in an English-speaking society, but as a tool for cultural preservation, the strategy has many advantages. Both immersion schools we visited are enjoying rising enrollments, with hundreds of students pressing the school’s physical capacities, substantial waiting lists, strong leadership, and a stable teaching staff. You cannot teach a new language without high expectations and devoted teaching. And students benefit doubly from the instruction in Hawaiian, since learning another language can also enhance comprehension of the structure underpinning one’s original tongue.

Clearly, the immersion schools have an élan that other charter schools might hope to emulate. Administrators say that only one or two new teachers leave each year. A senior at one of the schools told us that his teachers, “except for the new ones,” have been there since he matriculated in preschool. New teachers are needed as the schools expand, of course, and at one of the schools, a few senior teachers have left to take positions at Kamehameha, a private, multi-campus school that serves children of Hawaiian descent (see sidebar). Others have accepted leadership positions at immersion charters on other islands.

Principals say the earlier a student begins at an immersion school, the better. Hawaii’s charter law lets the schools give enrollment preference to younger students, and parents of older applicants are counseled that language learning is more difficult beyond a certain age. Neither immersion school typically admits a child beyond the age of seven, though an exception was made for a passionate young person desperate to retrieve his heritage language.

For the school, the advantage of early recruitment can hardly be overstated. The child quickly adapts to school culture, parents connect to teachers, the dress code is accepted, and students learn early the practice of “talking story,” the Hawaiian way of conversing thoughtfully and showing mutual respect when issues arise. Our student guide at one school said, “I feel sorry for the kids who can’t come here.”

At both immersion schools we visited, we observed especially large preschool classes. The tiny tots at one school chanted and listened to the visiting 4th graders from Maui with as much composure as could be expected of preschoolers. A few knew the chants well, and the rest followed along. The worst error was committed by one of your authors, who, until corrected, lined up on the female visitors’ side of the room.

Our student guide said that children never receive explicit instruction in the chants they perform. Rather, they follow teachers and other students until they master the language and gradually come to understand the chants’ meanings. According to a faculty member in the Hawaiian Studies program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo—an immersion program itself—immersion students have a fluency with the Hawaiian language well beyond that of students who learn it as a second language at an English-speaking school; but, having learned by rote, immersion students are more likely to make grammatical errors.

Families of students at immersion charter schools show their commitment by arranging for their child’s transportation, purchasing the school uniform, and covering costs for extracurricular activities. Still, not all parents are devotees of the Hawaiian Renaissance. Some families calculate that an immersion experience in elementary school enhances chances for acceptance at Kamehameha, which gives priority to those with demonstrated cultural awareness. Others simply prefer the immersion schools’ emphasis on community and character building.

Are immersion students learning the skills needed to survive and prosper in contemporary society? We are told that most graduates go on to college. And Shawn Kana‘iaupuni, a sociologist who is now director of planning at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, reports that, despite low performance upon entry, students at Hawaiian-focused schools showed greater progress on state standardized tests administered between 2003 and 2006 than comparable students at the state’s traditional public schools. Whether that edge still exists cannot be ascertained by looking at state testing data. Many parents ask that their child not be tested, and administrators, aware that performance on standardized tests is not one of the schools’ strong points, do not seem inclined to press the point.

A few parents seek exceptions to other rules. One parent explained that her boy no longer wanted to participate in protocol. “That’s fine,” said the principal, “there is no need to participate in protocol. This is a school of choice. There are plenty of other schools your child may attend.” The boy decided to stay. He was not eager to attend a school administered by the Hawai‘i State Department of Education.

Charter students learn to make poi, the traditional staple food of Hawaii made from the taro plant. Poi is cooked, mashed, and fermented to taste.
Charter students learn to make poi, the traditional staple food of Hawaii made from the taro plant. Poi is cooked, mashed, and fermented to taste.

The Department of Education

Those who think school districts and local school boards should be abolished will find Hawaii the paradise travel agents claim it to be. The governor appoints the one and only board of education that governs the Department of Education, or DOE, which in turn operates all traditional public schools from its headquarters in Honolulu. The board also appoints the state’s one and only charter school authorizer. Currently, Hawaii has 37 charter schools serving about 12,000 students, or approximately 7 percent of the state’s public-school enrollment.

The DOE has a collective bargaining agreement with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents all DOE and charter-school teachers. In both sectors, teachers are licensed by the state and compensated according to a single salary and benefit schedule. The DOE assigns teachers to the schools it operates, but charter schools may recruit their own teaching staff. Teachers at DOE schools can switch to a charter school and remain at the same level on the salary schedule. If they choose to return to a DOE school, they also stay at the same level.

Charters do not necessarily receive the same per-pupil funding levels as DOE schools, because the state legislature determines a lump-sum allocation for all charters, and the money is distributed among charters on a per-pupil basis. Charters face a particular lack of funding for transportation, special education, other ancillary activities, and, of greatest import, land acquisition and capital expenditure.

DOE schools in the town of Hilo (population about 45,000) are large, impersonal, featureless, pale-yellow brick structures apparently built with Pacific winds and storms foremost in mind. By comparison, the charter schools we visited resembled tents in a forest.

The Hawaiian Renaissance has barely touched DOE’s educational mission. Since its founding, DOE’s principal goal has been the integration of a multiplicity of cultures under an English-only umbrella. Small Hawaiian-focused programs were initiated within DOE in response to Renaissance pressures, but when given the opportunity to separate themselves from DOE into charter schools, these programs chose autonomy and flexibility over stable physical facilities.

For its part, DOE was pleased to see them depart.

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