There are 31 charter schools in Hawaii today, a majority of which are focused on regenerating the indigenous Hawaiian culture. Three years ago, I visited the Kanu o ka ‘Āina New Century Public Charter School. According to the Kanu website:
Our name kanu o ka ‘āina literally means “plants of the land” and figuratively refers to “natives of the land from generations back.” This name reflects the commitment of our school, our staff, our students and their families to perpetuate Hawaii’s native language, culture and traditions, as mandated by Article X of Hawaii’s State Constitution.
Everything about Kanu reflected a total immersion into native Hawaiian culture. All instruction was done in the native language, and native customs were practiced throughout the school.
When we arrived on campus at 10 a.m. one morning, everyone stopped working — teachers, students, janitors, even the guy cutting the grass — and welcomed us in a traditional Hawaiian ceremony that was very spiritual. Religion is so interwoven into the native Hawaiian language and culture that it’s impossible to practice the culture and speak the language without also practicing religion. When I asked the principal the propriety of promoting religion in a publicly funded school she just shrugged and said, “This is our culture. This is who we are. If we don’t teach our children their native culture that culture will die and much of who we are will die with it.”
I then asked if these children would be competitively disadvantaged when they graduated because they were taught all subjects in the native language. I wondered if their English proficiency would suffer. The principal said the children were only at her charter school six hours a day, 180 days per year and were immersed in the majority culture at all other times. She assured me her graduates were doing fine in college.
The use of charter schools by indigenous communities to reinvigorate their traditional language and culture is occurring across the United States. Two years ago, I visited two Indian Pueblos in New Mexico that were also using charter schools to teach tribal children their indigenous language and culture, and in both cases spirituality permeated those schools.
While Hebrew language charter schools and Catholic schools that convert to charter face scrutiny from critics who assert they violate the federal establishment clause and/or state Blaine amendments, spiritually oriented charter schools operated by native communities have mostly avoided criticism. Perhaps they enjoy a special political status because the issue of cultural genocide is in play. Nonetheless, if they keep expanding more scrutiny is inevitable. Fortunately, under the US Supreme Court’s 2002 Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision, which said parents may use public funds to pay tuition and fees at a faith-based school provided their choice is “genuine and independent,” these spiritually-oriented charter schools appear to be constitutional.