In April 2018, Hawaii’s schools superintendent Christina Kishimoto joined the teachers’ union at the State Capitol to witness a key Senate vote that secured passage of a constitutional amendment proposing a new tax to fund public schools.

The mood among the red-shirted union members in the Senate gallery that day was celebratory and triumphant as the bill sailed through on a 23-1 vote.

While the state Department of Education had not taken an official position on the bill, Kishimoto’s appearance alongside the Hawaii State Teachers Association, one year into her tenure, spoke volumes: she stood united with the group in its quest to increase funding for public education.

Kishimoto struggled to present a cohesive strategy when the pandemic set in, according to advocates who pointed to a lack of good data when it came to things like student device distribution or clear marching orders to school leaders for reopening their campuses.

“It seemed it was a communication thing,” said Cheri Nakamura, director of the He’e Coalition, an education advocacy group, pointing out that Kishimoto is an “extremely good communicator as an individual” and on “communicating externally about positive things in the department.”

But when it came to pandemic plans, “she would say things on the news and there would be a lot of confusion. She made these decisions without consulting the board.”

And when it came to Kishimoto’s “school empowerment approach,” it wasn’t quite clear to many education advocates what exactly that meant, said David Miyashiro, executive director of Hawaii KidsCAN. He said that approach created a lot of confusion among principals who were told to decide their own reopening models.

“The school empowerment model created that culture, that every school would do its own thing for better or for worse,” he said. “But in times of full crisis, the issue with that model comes to the forefront.”

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