HONOLULU (AP) — Hundreds of angry parents protested Hawaii's statewide public school shutdown Friday, saying their children are losing out on education due to government budget cuts.
Hawaii closed 256 public schools Friday, the first of 17 teacher furlough days planned for this school year, giving the island state the shortest school year in the nation at 163 days. Most states have 180 school days.
While the parents waved signs and passed petitions at the state Capitol rally, their children wrote postcards to lawmakers and drew posters at arts and crafts tables.
The protesters, many of them bused in from schools across Oahu, formed a sea of yellow shirts with the message, "My Child Left Behind," a play on the federal No Child Left Behind initiative.
Hawaii musician Jack Johnson and entertainer Ben Vereen lended their support with a few songs.
"There has to be a better solution than furloughing our kids," said Kathy Makuakane, who carried a sign saying: "You are furloughing our future."
Even her 8-year-old son, Jesse, agreed that he'd rather be in school at Kaelepulu Elementary.
"I don't really like it. I have a lot of fun in school most of the time," he said.
Organizers said the demonstration was meant to show elected leaders they shouldn't make children suffer for a lack of financial planning as the state faces a $1 billion projected shortfall over the next 20 months.
"I hope this raises awareness that people of Hawaii care about education, and we can do something about it," said Vernadette Gonzalez, who helped coordinate the protest. "It's a lack of imagination that keeps us back."
Many hope the state will make education a priority by raising taxes or dipping into emergency funds to restore Hawaii's school year. But those potential solutions, especially raising taxes, may prove unpopular among legislators looking to get re-elected.
Some teachers used their day off to show their support for parents who would rather put them back to work. The furloughs amount to an 8 percent pay cut for teachers.
"Education should be among the last things cut," said Jennifer Parson, an eighth-grade English teacher at Kalakaua Middle School. She carried a sign declaring, "I should be taking roll right now. No more furlough days."
"We're all having the same economic crisis, but other places have way more education days," said Sunny Yoon, whose 7-year-old son is a 2nd grader at Noelani Elementary, where President Barack Obama attended kindergarten. "Education is the most important thing. We pay a lot of taxes, and our children should get an education."
The loss of education will have unintended consequences, with more children being left alone and thus able to get into trouble, parent Jason McKinley said.
"They're unsupervised. They're left on the street," McKinley said. "What do you think is going to happen? It's like taking 10 steps backward."
Community organizations and daycare centers stepped up their efforts to help families unprepared for their kids' unexpected day off. They prepared for extra enrollment on teacher furlough days, but early reports showed that fewer parents than expected took advantage.
Central Pacific Bank dedicated several rooms for daycare services where employees could drop off their children for $15. The space at company headquarters was filled with computers, games, toys and movies.
"Employees wanted to help their fellow employees with a problem they had," said Karen Street, the bank's human resources director. "Parents are still sorting through all of it."