K-12 Schools in Hawaii: Private vs. Public

If you're moving to Hawaii and have children between the ages of five and eighteen, you may be wondering what the best option for schooling is - public school, private school, or charter school. Read on to learn more about Hawaii’s school system and the top public and private schools on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.

How does the public school system work in Hawaii?

The Hawaii public school system was founded by King Kamehameha III in 1840 and is the oldest system west of the Mississippi River. The public school system spans the entire state and all the islands, meaning all the 294 schools with around 174,000 students and 12,700 teachers are under one Superintendent and one Hawaii Board of Education, whose nine voting members are appointed by the Governor and advised by the state Senate. 

Hawaii is the only Local Educational Agency (LEA) and State Educational Agency (SEA) in the United States; most schools on the U.S. mainland are under a separate, smaller district or LEA. To govern this large public school system, Hawaii public schools are split into 15 complex areas, which is each led by a complex area superintendent and is named by the high schools that students in that complex area will attend:

Oahu

  • Farrington-Kaiser-Kalani
  • Kaimuki-McKinley-Roosevelt
  • Aiea-Moanalua-Radford
  • Leilehua-Mililani-Waialua
  • Campbell-Kapolei
  • Pearl City-Waipahu
  • Nanakuli-Waianae
  • Castle-Kahuku
  • Kailua-Kalaheo

Hawaii Island / Big Island

  • Hilo-Waiakea
  • Kau-Keaau-Pahoa
  • Honokaa-Kealakehe-Kohala-Konawaena

Maui, Molokai, and Lanai

  • Baldwin-Kekaulike-Maui
  • Hana-Lahainaluna-Lanai-Molokai

Kauai

  • Kapaa-Kauai-Waimea

Unlike many places in the U.S. Mainland, funding for Hawaii public schools does not directly come from property taxes. Instead, the state of Hawaii legislature approves the annual budget, which is signed or vetoed by the Governor; this main source of funding for the schools is mostly funded through state tax revenue funds and is used for the day-to-day operations of the schools. There are also capital funds used for school facilities as well as some additional funding from the federal government.

The funding for each school is calculated “per pupil,” or by the number of students attending that school. In fiscal year 2018, Hawaii public schools received $15,242 for each student attending that particular public school. This per-pupil funding figure includes money from the state, the federal government, special funds, and trust monies.

How does the private school system work in Hawaii?

Private schools have their own unique mission and curriculum and do not have to be held accountable to as many state or federal regulations as the Hawaii public schools. They set their own policies for teacher credentials and student admissions, meaning their teachers are not typically a part of a union and they do not have to accept every student like a public school. 

Private schools in Hawaii are diverse. There are private preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools; some Hawaii private schools serve students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. In Hawaii, private schools are boarding, day, parochial/religious, secular, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, International Baccalaureate (IB), Waldorf, and many other options.

While Hawaii private schools are offered more autonomy in how their schools are operated than the public schools, they do have to be licensed and/or accredited. In 2015, the Hawaii legislature passed Act 227, which required all private schools in Hawaii to be licensed by the Hawaii Council of Private Schools (HCPS) or accredited by a recognized accrediting body, such as the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) which accredits almost all public and private schools in Hawaii. For K-12 private schools in Hawaii to be licensed, they must meet certain criteria:

  • Mandate students to attend school.
  • Set a certain number of schools days and/or hours when students are with the teacher in classes.
  • Issue official school records, like transcripts and diplomas.
  • Ensure their students are only enrolled in their school and not also enrolled in homeschool, a public school, or another private school.
  • Define themselves as a school and not an alternative education program.

Unlike the public school system, which offers education without tuition charges through the use of state and federal taxes and other public funding, Hawaii private schools often charge tuition, which parents must pay. Other funds to operate the school are typically received through charitable contributions. 

Most Hawaii private schools, including all of them that are HAIS members, are non-profit schools, meaning that funds go back to operating the schools and that each school must have a board of trustees who lead the non-profit. However, a few private schools in Hawaii are for-profit, meaning it is run like a business and is meant to generate profit.

What types of private schools are in Hawaii?

The best private school will depend on the child’s needs and unique learning styles, so it is helpful to know what educational options are available in Hawaii. 

  • Religious / Parochial Schools: Some schools are operated by a certain church and are called parochial schools. In Hawaii, some schools are operated under Catholic, Protestant, Episcopal, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, and other religious entities. Some Hawaii private schools teach a certain religion, such as non-denominational Christian, but are not directly tied to or operated under a specific church. Often religious schools welcome students of all backgrounds, teaching both secular and religious instruction while also teaching religious values and traditions. Religious schools can be found on every major Hawaiian Island – Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.
  • Waldorf Schools: Developed by Austrian teacher, Rudolf Steiner, a Waldorf school uses art and movement as the main way of teaching and throughout its curriculum. The first Waldorf School opened in Germany in 1919. Waldorf schools are around the world, but are there Waldorf Schools in Hawaii? Yes, on Oahu, there is the Honolulu Waldorf School, which is located in Kaimuki and serves students in grades preschool to 8. On Maui, there is the Haleakala Waldorf School, serving students from preschool to grade 12, and on the Big Island, there is the Malamalama Waldorf School, serving students from preschool to grade eight.
  • Montessori: The instruction methods of Montessori Schools were developed by Italian doctor and teacher, Maria Montessori, and focus on harmonious relationships between the child, environment, and the teacher. Montessori Schools focus not only on academic but also social and emotional development and allow the child to follow their interests at their own pace of learning. The teachers serve as guides. Are there Montessori Schools in Hawaii? Yes, there are over ten Montessori Schools in Hawaii on the islands on Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. Usually, these schools are small.
  • International Baccalaureate (IB): Known to be academically rigorous, IB schools focus on teaching students to think critically and to apply their learning to real-world situations in units of study. There are more than 5,000 IB schools in over 150 countries throughout the world, and Hawaii has three IB schools on Oahu: Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei, and Mid-Pacific Institute in Honolulu.
  • Other: Many Hawaii private schools do not follow the aforementioned educational programs or are not affiliated with a church or religion. Private schools can create their own unique educational missions and programs to best suit the students and communities they serve. As diverse as children are in Hawaii, that is as diverse as the private schools are in the islands.

How about the charter schools in Hawaii?

In 1995, Waialae Elementary became Hawaii’s first charter school, and in 1999 the state of Hawaii passed Act 62, which was the state’s first charter law. Now, there are 38 charter schools. How are charter schools different from traditional public schools? In Hawaii, one of the sole differences is that each charter school has a local school board and a unique educational program – whether that be online education or Hawaiian immersion curriculum. A Hawaii charter school may offer a special educational program that is suitable for your child that a traditional Hawaii public school might not offer.

While Hawaii charter schools operate under a special performance contract with the State Public Charter School Commission, which has nine members, they ultimately must be held accountable by the progress indicators for all Hawaii public and charter schools under the Hawaii Department of Education and the Hawaii Board of Education. Despite differences in their educational programs, Hawaii charter schools fall under the same accountability structures as the traditional public schools in Hawaii.

Another difference is that Hawaii charter schools have significantly less funding than traditional public schools. In fiscal year 2018, Hawaii charter schools received $7,259 per pupil. As a result of receiving less funding, some Hawaii charter schools have not-as-nice facilities, such as pop-up tents, or rely on alternative funding, such as donations.

Many charter schools are Pre-kindergarten to grade 12, and some specialize in the elementary or middle school grades. Applications are often done through a lottery system if all spaces are filled. To find a Hawaii charter school, visit the Hawaii Public Charter School’s Commission directory.

Where are the best public schools in Hawaii?

Based on interviews with parents and teachers and research done by Honolulu Magazine’s public school rankings before COVID-19, the following are the best public schools in the Hawaiian Islands. Data from math, reading, and science assessments as well as attendance and student surveys were analyzed to determine where the best public schools in Hawaii are located.

Best Oahu Public Schools

In Manoa, Hawaii’s top elementary schools will be found tucked into this safe, family-friendly neighborhood. While there are many private schools near Manoa Valley, the public elementary schools in Manoa have had a reputation for years of being some of the best in the state: Noelani Elementary and Manoa Elementary.

Also in Manoa is the University Laboratory School, which is located on the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s campus. The University Lab School is a K-12 charter school and ranks as one of the top high schools in Hawaii. Parents have lauded that the Lab School is like some of the top private schools nearby.

The neighborhood of Salt Lake is located near the military installations of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Fort Shafter, and Camp Smith. The public elementary schools in Salt Lake rank higher than other neighborhoods on Oahu. The top elementary schools include Momilani Elementary and Palisades Elementary. Moanalua Middle School and Aiea Middle School, which are near Salt Lake, are often ranked as some of the top middle schools in Hawaii, while Moanalua High School also has a strong reputation.

Hawaii Kai is also known to have the best schools on Oahu. Hawaii Kai’s public school complex was the first in the state to offer the prestigious and rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) World School Programme for grades K-12. Families who live in Hawaii Kai can have their child attend the local elementary school, which will feed into Niu Valley Middle School and Kaiser High School.

The family-friendly neighborhood of Mililani also has a reputation locally for offering better public school education on Oahu. Some people will move to Mililani to have their children attend the schools in the neighborhood. Mililani Uka Elementary is often ranked as one of the best elementary schools in Mililani and in Hawaii. Mililani Middle School and Mililani High School offer an array of educational programs, and students often perform well academically as compared to other Oahu schools.

Best Maui Public Schools

In Makawao, Pukalani Elementary is the top-rated elementary school – although it ranks much lower than the elementary schools on Oahu. Lokelani Intermediate is one of the top middle schools in the state and is located in Kihei. Maui High and King Kekaulike High are similarly ranked high schools, with Maui High being located in Kahului and King Kekaulike located upcountry on the slopes of Haleakala in Makawao.

Best Kauai Public Schools

All of the better-rated elementary, middle, and high schools on Kauai are found in Lihue. Kaumuali‘i is the top-rated elementary on Kauai, although it is ranked much lower than elementary schools on Oahu. There are only three middle schools on Kauai, and of those three, Kamakahelei Middle is the best. As for the high schools on Kauai, there are only two traditional public school options, and Kauai High ranks the best, nearing the top ten of all high schools in the state. 

Best Big Island Public Schools

De Silva Elementary is one of the top-rated elementary schools in all of Hawaii and also the best public elementary school on the Big Island. Ernest Bowen de Silva Elementary School is located in Hilo. As for middle schools, the charter school of Kona Pacific is highly ranked, and Waikoloa Middle is one of the best traditional public middle schools on the Big Island. Hilo Intermediate is ranked near the top of all middle schools on the Big Island, although the school is ranked in the middle of all intermediate schools in the state. Waiakea High is one of the top high schools in the state and is located in Hilo near the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Where are the best private schools in Hawaii?

The best private school for one child may not be the best for another child; however, to narrow the results of private schools, we have provided the top schools on each of the major inhabited Hawaiian Islands based on parent and faculty reviews and ratings regarding academics, extracurricular activities, teachers, and diversity.

In Honolulu, some of Hawaii’s best overall private schools with the strongest reputations are located. Some of these schools are known to be the best private schools in the United States. Here are the top Honolulu private schools:

  • ‘Iolani School: With over 2000 students in grades K-12, ‘Iolani has one of the best reputations in Hawaii for its rigorous academics and successful graduates. It was founded in 1863 and is a religious school under the Episcopal Church.
  • Punahou School: Punahou is Hawaii’s largest private school and one of the largest private schools in the United States with more than 3000 students in grades kindergarten to 12. Some of its acclaimed alumni include former President Barak Obama and surfer and multiple world titleholder Carissa Moore.
  • Mid-Pacific Institute: Mid Pac is located near the University of Hawaii at Manoa and has around 1500 students in grades prekindergarten to 12. It is a Christian school and offers IB curriculum as well as a diverse student body.
  • Maryknoll School: The largest co-ed Catholic school in Hawaii, Maryknoll was founded in 1927 by nuns and has around 1,100 students in grades K-12. They offer a Chinese immersion program for students in elementary and middle school.

Kailua, located on the Windward side of Oahu, has some of Oahu’s top private schools as well:

  • Le Jardin Academy: With around 800 students in grades prekindergarten to 12, Le Jardin is known to be a challenging school with its IB curriculum. It also offers an array of extracurricular options in its smaller school environment.
  • Trinity Christian School: Known to be a classical Christian and college preparatory school, Trinity Christian School serves almost 400 students in grades prekindergarten to 12.

In Kapolei, there is a top-rated prekindergarten to 12th-grade school, which offers IB curriculum:

  • Island Pacific Academy: With around 500 students in grades prekindergarten to 12, this newer school in Kapolei offers new facilities and a rigorous IB curriculum.

On the North Shore of Oahu, there is a K-12 day and boarding international school that gets great reviews from students and parents:

  • Asia Pacific International School, Hawaii Campus: Offering both day and boarding options, this international school in Hau‘ula is known for its project-based learning curriculum and small class sizes on a large, country campus.

Maui Private Schools

In Makawao, there is Seabury Hall which has around 500 students and serves students in grades 6 to 12. 

Maui Preparatory Academy is located in Lahaina, and it serves about 260 students in grades prekindergarten to 12.

Kauai Private Schools

In Lihue, the Island School is rated as one of the top Hawaii private schools in the state. It serves around 425 students in grades prekindergarten to 12.

In Kilauea, located near Hanalei and the Na Pali Coast, there is the Kauai Christian Academy. This small Christian school serves about 100 students in grades prekindergarten to 12.

Big Island Private Schools

Kamuela has some of the top Hawaii private schools in the entire state:

  • Hawaii Preparatory Academy: This K-12 day and boarding school is known to be one of the most prestigious and expensive schools in the state. Its students come from all over the world to attend academically stimulating college preparatory classes.
  • Parker School: Located on the historical Parker Ranch, this K-12 school with around 315 students has a family-like atmosphere.

There is also a great Big Island private school in Holualoa near Kailua-Kona: Makua Lani Christian School. This school has around 215 students in grades prekindergarten to 12. Their strong college-preparatory academics and personal teachers offer a caring environment for students to learn.

What's best for your children?

It's tough to say. There are many factors to consider including neighborhood, cost, mission and vision, teachers and administrators, programs, athletics, scheduling and flexibility, and more. 

On one hand, Hawaii’s public school system does get a lot of criticism from community members, there are a number of great schools filled with devoted teachers and administrators. All public and charter schools receive an equitable amount of funding per pupil and are governed by a statewide Department of Education led by the Hawaii Board of Education. However, despite the apparent equity, some Hawaii public schools in certain neighborhoods often outshine others.

On the other hand, due to their flexible nature and less government restrictions, private schools often can more easily respond to individual student needs and offer unique educational programs and missions. Private school is much more expensive, but many Hawaii parents are willing to pay that price.