Justices: ‘Reasonable’ access to Hawaiian language immersion a constitutional right

Hawaiian language advocates are celebrating after State Supreme Court ruling

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Supreme Court has ruled Hawaii’s constitution requires “reasonable access” to Hawaiian language immersion programs as a necessary component of restoring the language and ultimately the culture.

The case was brought by the parent of two schoolchildren on Lanai. The only public school on the island has not been able to build a Hawaiian language immersion program.

Lanai school officials said they tried repeatedly to hire faculty for an immersion program, but had too much trouble recruiting.

In a 4-to-1 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that access to a Hawaiian language class a few times a week was not sufficient and said steps must be taken to attempt to build the program.

“These steps might include providing greater financial or other incentives to attract immersion teachers to Lanai, furnishing transportation for a teacher to commute to Lanai, using multiple instructors to share teaching duties, partnering with community members knowledgeable in olelo Hawaii, modifying school days or hours of instruction to accommodate the availability of a teacher, or adopting any other alternative method of providing access to a Hawaiian immersion program," the justices wrote.

“Ultimately, all reasonable alternatives are to be considered to determine whether access to a Hawaiian immersion program is feasible, and the state is constitutionally obliged to take a reasonable course of action that would afford access.”

In her dissent, Justice Paula Nakayama said she agreed the state should provide “as many students as possible” with access to immersion programs but she disagreed that the state Constitution required it.

The case was sent back to Circuit Court to determine if the state has done all it can to provide the program on Lanai.

“It was an incredibly powerful decision, a monumental decision,” said David Kauila Kopper of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

“The community and the people of Lanai are no less deserving of the right to have access to a Native Hawaiian language immersion program,” he added.

Kalehua Krug is the DOE’s Kaiapuni education specialist in the Office of Hawaiian Education. He hopes immersion can eventually be in every school.

"The parents are saying we want more schools, we want more seats, we want more classrooms and in essence, the community is showing up sending their children faster than we can produce quality speakers and teachers to address this,' said Kalehua Krug.

House finance committee chair Sylvia Luke says implementation will be difficult and recruiting and retaining teachers on Lanai is a struggle because of the island’s high cost of living.

“The problem that Lanai faces now is not just recruitment in Hawaiian language and Hawaiian immersion school teachers, but Lanai has problems holding on to teachers in general,” said Luke.

The state Department of Education launched its Hawaiian Language Immersion Program in 1987. Instruction is only in Hawaiian through grade 5, at which point English is introduced.

“This is still an active case. The Department remains deeply committed to our Kaiapuni program,” said the DOE in a statement.

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