Does Hawaii Make the Case for Religious Charters?
Immersion charter schools in the Aloha State infuse native language, culture, and tradition
by Paul E. Peterson and Nina Buchanan, Education Next, Fall, 2023
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 no‘eau) 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 ‘a‘ā (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….
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2015: Is School Prayer Crossing a Line at Some Hawaii Charter Schools?