A 2015 ban on free travel for public school teachers who organize out-of-state field trips was essentially lifted Friday, after a Circuit Court judge invalidated advice given by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,500 teachers, challenged the Ethics Commission opinion, arguing that the agency violated state law and the union’s constitutional rights when it said that under the state ethics code, teachers cannot accept free travel from tour companies in exchange for organizing trips.
It had been a decades-long practice for teachers to travel free while chaperoning students on field trips to the mainland and abroad. Typically, a free chaperone spot was provided for every six to 10 students booked.
The Ethics Commission’s guidance was prompted by an inquiry just before the 2015-16 school year about a middle school’s planned educational trip to Washington, D.C., and New York.
The commission issued a memorandum and advisory opinion, saying “it is reasonable to infer that the free travel and other benefits offered to teachers by a tour company are intended as both an incentive for the teachers to promote the trip to as many students/parents as possible and a reward for the teachers’ efforts in generating revenue for the tour company.”
The advice, HSTA’s attorney said, had a “chilling effect” and led to a de facto ban on trips because teachers were afraid of running afoul of the Ethics Code. At least 31 trips were canceled during last school year, with many more halted before planning could start.
Judge Rhonda Nishimura repealed the Ethics Commission’s Aug. 4, 2015, memo and Aug. 19, 2015, advisory opinion today after hearing oral arguments. She said because the advice applies to a broader group, the process is subject to official rulemaking under law, which involves the public.
“So for the state Ethics Commission to issue such an advisory opinion and guidance memo that has a broader application than just a particular teacher or particular trip, does require that the entities involved engage in rulemaking,” Nishimura said.
“By her ruling that way, it has in essence repealed it, which puts us back to where we were before,” Colleen Hanabusa, attorney for the teachers union, said outside the courtroom. “In other words, the way that they handled it was not proper.”
The commission, which was represented by Deputy Attorney General Robyn Chun, can appeal the ruling. Nishimura encouraged the parties “to engage in meaningful discourse” moving forward.
The HSTA, meanwhile, called the ruling a victory.
“Thousands of students were denied the great opportunity to learn beyond the classroom,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said after the ruling. “This was a victory today for the public school children of Hawaii. … For decades Hawaii has recognized that trips outside the classroom are invaluable, and this brings back sanity to the process and allows these kids … to experience the world.”