Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, April 1, 1999

Free UH tuition
for Hawaiians

THERE'S considerable charm to the idea of free tuition at the University of Hawaii for persons with Hawaiian blood. It can help fill a need for better education for our most disadvantaged social group.

I hope it happens, but it needs deferral to be a part of the "global settlement" Governor Cayetano is seeking with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs over ceded land revenues. In the end it could be one of the brighter stars in this package.

The governor makes a strong case against piecemeal settlements with OHA that will be pocketed without ending the continuing litigation over what OHA is entitled to. OHA got some $135 million from the state under a 1990 "settlement law," then turned around and won a lower court judgment so mammoth it is the basis of the present negotiations.

The amounts OHA is quite skillfully demanding as its share of lands that were taken from the Kingdom of Hawaii 106 years ago -- then passed through successor governments to the present state government -- run to quite a few hundreds of millions. Even a billion dollars has been mentioned.

The claims are so big there is growing thought the state should turn over lands as well as money in exchange for finality to the fight. Completing such a pact, Cayetano says, is one of his most important goals for the 44 months left in his term.

The government of New Zealand is working with success toward agreements over somewhat comparable claims from its Maoris, who are Polynesian cousins of Hawaiians. Their settlements are easier to reach because they are proceeding tribe by tribe. Some of the biggest tribes already have settled.

Hawaii has no tribes, thus the need here for what Cayetano sees as a global settlement. The Maori model is illustrative, however, in its blend of rights (such as fishing rights), land returns and cash.

A New Zealand government guideline is not to create new problems in the course of settling old ones. We need the same here.

The attraction of free University of Hawaii tuition for Hawaiians is strong because education is one way to reduce economic distress, crime, domestic violence and health problems that are higher among Hawaiians than for the rest of the population.

There will be the question, of course, of "who is Hawaiian?" because blood quantums range to the minuscule. They are hard to determine in any event, given the weakness of our historical vital statistics.

The University of Hawaii already counts about 6,000 Hawaiian students among its system-wide 40,000. Thirty percent of Big Island community college students are Hawaiian. Kapiolani Community College has a low of 10 percent. "Free" tuition threatens the UH budget unless some state or OHA reimbursement is arranged. Quite a few Hawaiian students already are on scholarship, however.

UH authorities don't believe that international students should be spurned in order to accept Hawaiians. UH wants both. The international students broaden the educational experience for other students and also bring money into the state.

Digging into the tuition-waiver plan quickly shows it is as complicated as it is popular. But a state university doing its very best to educate the state's indigenous population is something almost all of us want.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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