Public and Private Schools in Hawaii

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University of Hawaii - Manoa Campus, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii

Public and Private Schools in Hawaii

Hawaii has a single state-wide public school system. It has one centralized school board, located on Oahu, and governing the entire State of Hawaii – all 284 public schools.  Funding for each school is fair and balanced.

Bringing Your Kids to Hawaii

Bringing your school-aged kids (keiki) to Hawaii to live might seem like a great idea… ‘let them breathe the clean air and soak up the sunshine… swim with the dolphins!’ Sure. They can do all that. But, they’ll still have to endure the school system. For mainland kids arriving in Hawaii for public or private school it’s usually traumatic.

I’ll catch flak for this – but, speaking from the heart – I wouldn’t recommend that anyone bring their kids to Hawaii to live. I just wouldn’t. That’s me. I’ve considered at length whether I would want my daughter to grow up in Hawaii and attend Hawaii’s schools. I’ve decided – no, definitely not. We have chosen to live in Thailand and send her to a private school here.

In Hawaii, homeschooling might seem like the best option. I do think Hawaii would be a great place for a child to grow up, I am just unsure about the school system.

Does that mean that all kids going to public schools in Hawaii grow up with problems? No. Personally I know a dozen kids or more that grew up fine, and are respectful of their parents, are hardworking and just all-around good kids. I know kids that went to Punahou and that went on to Yale, and UCLA Berkeley. They are great kids, as far as I can see.

I also know some kids that grew up like local hoodlums and are breaking into cars for a living.

It’s a tough call – and I’d say that who your child befriends is probably the biggest predictor of whether or not he or she will have a childhood experience that is in-line with your expectations for your child. Problem is – we rarely choose our kids’ friends – right?

The Best Primary Schools in the Islands?

Some residents with kids personally recommend:

  • Koko Head School
  • Aina Haina Elementary
  • Mililani Mauka Elementary.

Honolulu Magazine does an annual review of Oahu’s public schools. The article is called, “Hawaii’s public school chart 2018”. Click that link for more information. They also have a downloadable PDF file which lists the top 44 public schools in Hawaii each year – according to their own criteria. Worth a look – download here.

Though the reviews don’t cover the “dirt” like they should, you’ll have some idea which schools are at least trying to provide the best experience for kids.

The Top 10 Primary Schools on Oahu in2016

(in order, best are first):

  • E.B. De Silva Elementary school
  • Lanikai Elementary
  • Pearl City Elementary
  • Ali’iolani Elementary
  • Helemano Elementary
  • Lehua Elementary
  • Maunawili Elementary
  • Pauoa Elementary
  • ‘Aikahi Elementary
  • Kanoelani Elementary

Where your child goes to school is dictated by where you live, though you can apply for what’s called a “District Exception” if you would like your child to attend school in a district other than the one you live in.

I don’t think there are real problems with the teachers in Hawaii. I know they are trying very hard to raise the standards. I do know that there is a serious lack of facilities and funding for some schools.

I think a big part of the problem with Hawaii’s schools, isn’t the schools at all. It’s the social situation that kids find themselves in. There are plenty of kids – that are coasting through life and not interested in school at all. Their parents aren’t that interested either – they have a view of life that doesn’t’ coincide with my own – of working hard and gaining something for yourself.

The Hawaii lifestyle is one of ease and no stress. Many kids are copying their parents in this regard. This sets up examples for your kids to see in school. I don’t know where they get it from, but there are some really hilarious kids. Pidgin’ – the local dialect – is really quite funny, and most kids want to speak it well and make everyone laugh too.

The kids that speak pidgin’ constantly, instead of proper English for the most part, are probably not the ones that are knocking themselves out to learn at school though.

The social situation for kids in Hawaii is opposite to what you as a parent probably want for your child. Though you might love the laid back atmosphere of Hawaii – you’ll probably be fighting the influence it has over your children.

Hawaii Universities

The University of Hawaii (UH) with main campus at Manoa, is a public university that offers bachelor, master, doctoral, and post-doc degrees.  It is of course, accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Hawaii Private Universities

Nearly 20% of school children in Hawaii attend one of the 130 private schools. These schools have, on average, better reputations than the public schools, but can be very costly.

The percentage of kids in private school taken in comparison with other states in the USA – is the highest in the nation.

Some private schools focus on college-prep, so your child can get into a good university upon graduation from secondary school. Others focus on creativity and the artistic side of development – while not neglecting traditional curricula.

Here is some information about select private schools:

Punahou School

Barack Obama graduated from this private school and became president. This is considered the ultimate private school in Hawaii. There are over 3,800 students running the entire age range from kindergarten to 12th grade. The focus of Punahou is on college preparation, and it is considered one of the best in the entire nation.

Punahou has an excellent athletic program. Facilities include a heated Olympic-size swimming pool and an 8-lane Mondo running track surface. Students can choose from 22 sports!

In addition to a stellar athletics program, students can study dance, drama, and music – all nationally recognized programs. Other programs include jewelry, photographic darkroom facilities, and glass-blowing studio!

Cost per year for Punahou tuition in 2018-2019 : $24, 780

Iolani School


Iolani School is a private school with over 1,800 students from pre-school age to grade 12. Iolani School is affiliated with the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Iolani school is in Honolulu on the island of Oahu. The school focuses on college prep as well as athletics. More than 2/3 of all attending students are part of an Iolani athletic team – covering 32 competitive sports.

Cost per year for Iolani tuition in 2018-2019: $23, 450

Hawaii Schools with Religious Affiliation

Maryknoll School is a private Roman Catholic school with 1,400 students in pre-school to 12th grade. Located in Honolulu. About $17,800/ year in 2018-2019.

Sacred Heart’s Academy is a private Roman Catholic school for girls only. Students served are from kindergarten to 12th grade.  Ranging from $12,000-$14,000 / year in 2018.

Damien Memorial School is a private, Catholic school for boys located in Honolulu. This school teaches students from 7th to 12th grades. About $11,000-$16,000/ year in 2018.

Other Private Hawaii Schools

Honolulu Waldorf School is a private school serving about 300 students from pre-school to 12th grade.  Between $16,000 and $18,000 per year in 2018.

Montessori Community School is a private school providing a Montessori education for children ages 2 through 12 yrs of age. Between $8,500 –
$12,000 per year in 2017.

Hawaii Preparatory Academy is located on the Big Island of Hawaii and is a private school, teaching students from kindergarten through 12th grade. On campus boarding is available for grades 6 – 12. Students are international including those from Hawaii, 15 other states, and 15 foreign countries. Between $25,000 (Day Students) and $50,000 per year (Boarding Students).

Island School is a private in Lihue on the island of Kauai. This is a college prep which has students from pre-school through 12th grade. Between $9,800 and $29,950 per year in 2017.

List of Hawaii Universities

University of Hawaii at Manoa, Hilo, or West Oahu. I attended this campus part time while serving in the U.S. Air Force years ago. It’s a lovely campus with a lot of trees for shade. Sometimes classes are held outside on the grass.

Hawaii Community Colleges

  • Hawaii Community College
  • Honolulu Community College
  • Kapiolani Community College
  • Kauai Community College
  • Maui Community College
  • Windward Community College

Hawaii Graduate Schools

  • John A. Burns School of Medicine
  • William S. Richardson School of Law

Private Hawaii Universities

  • Hawaii Pacific University (HPU)
  • Brigham Young University Hawaii (BYU Hawaii)
  • Chaminade University of Honolulu. Roman Catholic affiliation.
  • Argosy University
  • Hawaii Tokai International College (HTIC)
  • Honolulu University
  • The International College and Graduate School. Christian affiliation.
  • Remington College
  • Heald College Honolulu
  • TransPacific Hawaii College

It bears repeating… I don’t think you should come to Hawaii with kids – unless you can afford to put them in a good private school where there is at least a modicum of control over them. If kids act up too much in a private school – they are terminated. In a public school – what are they going to do? Right, they live with it. That’s why the public schools are such a bad experience.

If you raised your kids in Hawaii’s schools and they were not born there – could you tell your story? We’d love to have it… write us at the email at the top of the column to your right. Mahalos!

[Photo credit – member, Anna’s Photos]

About the Author:

I’ve lived Hawaii since the mid ‘80s when I moved here at the age of 21. I arrived site-unseen in Honolulu with zero contacts and about $5k in savings. I worked from nearly zero and today Hawaii has given me the greatest gifts in the world in all aspects: spiritually, financially, romantically (married since early ‘90s w/ 2 children), and most important, peace. My goal with this site is to share the magic of this Land of Aloha and help others who are on a similar quest.


  1. PJ 05/18/2018 at 8:42 am - Reply

    This family chose to raise up their kids in Thailand. Great. Should you read more? No. Move on to other articles. Born and raised in Thailand here in a healthy & wealthy family. Gone to best and most expensive school there as well. I would say go Hawai’i. Compare to Thailand you can’t go wrong with any Hawaii’s island so.

  2. Kaia 04/01/2018 at 5:18 pm - Reply

    How dare you call Hawaiian Pidgin “funny”. Your elitist, prescriptivist view of the local dialect is both racist and disgusting. As a teacher seeking employment in Hawaii, I am disappointed in this article.

    • GG 04/02/2018 at 4:16 am - Reply

      I speak (or at least spoke) Pidgin for several decades. He may not have described it well, but his second paragraph on Pidgin is spot on.

      Those that do not spend the time to learn to speak English eloquently will not advance far in life. Hawaiian Pidgin and other “lazy” languages (like Blackish) should not be embraced. They teach bad habits, do not prepare individuals for life, and help foster division in our society.

      I would recommend that you spread your wings and try teaching outside of Hawaii for at least five years before entering into the barren wasteland of the public Hawaiian Teacher ranks. I have seen to many teachers start teaching in Hawaii full of vim and vigor and within one year they are broke by the system that rewards mediocrity and punishes attempts at excellence.

  3. shannon 03/29/2018 at 5:46 am - Reply

    Well crap….I have a 2 and 5 year old, hoping to move to HI in the next 4-5 years from Denver. Sounds like I better ask for a raise? Are the private schools, THAT much better to warrant the cost?

    • GG 03/29/2018 at 5:10 pm - Reply

      In a word, YES. Public Schools are that much worse that it is necessary to pay the cost if you want to give them a reasonable chance to be prepared and/or to get accepted by any University.

      I left because I could not afford to put two kids in private school.

      There is NO WAY I would consider moving to Hawaii unless I could afford 40-45K+ (2013 prices) for one of the better private schools for my two kids. There are some religious schools that are cheaper but their education levels vary. They do not offer the same large scale of education options that the top 3 or so private high schools do, but might be a viable option depending on what type of education you want your kids to have.

  4. G G 07/18/2017 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    I moved to Hawaii after getting a Masters degree at the University of Texas. After 20 years of living in Hawaii I left due to the education system. I was able to get a district exemption to get my daughter the only primary school that had made the “top 3” public schools ranking for the previous three years, Kahala Elementary School. The “K” teacher was an absolute disaster, the “1st” teacher was excellent, the “2nd” teacher was young motivated and clueless, the “3rd” teacher was mediocre.

    Teachers pay is based on years of seniority and not on ability (or desire) to teach.

    After moving the Texas, my daughter had to stay after school for failing to be at grade level in 4th grade in math and English. At the end of 5th grade she had progressed to be out in the advanced level of each (pre-algebra) for 6th grade. She wasn’t dumb, but she had not been adequately prepared. Texas is not great, but compared to Hawaii . . .

    I know of a teacher that got to sit home for at least one year at full pay because the principal did not want the teacher in the classroom but did not have the ability to fire him. Instead he hired a substitute teacher for the entire year!!!

    I could not afford $19K ($24K now) for each child (I have 2) to go to one of the better schools and still be able to afford the paradise tax of living in Hawaii.

    • Peter Kay 07/18/2017 at 7:45 pm - Reply

      Thanks for commenting! I’ve found over the years that schooling is the deal-killer for many families for the reasons you laid out. I’ve found that many people can stomach the huge cost increases and serious pay cuts to live in paradise but when faced with $24k/yr of after-tax expenses to put 2-3 kids through school (i.e. $48-$72k total, meaning it will take about $60-100k in income!) the next thing you hear is a giant sucking sound of folks leaving. Sad. At least you had 20 awesome years!

  5. Carrie Paskel 07/15/2017 at 10:17 am - Reply

    This is very good information! Thank you for taking time to share. God bless you!

  6. tamwatoo.utimawa 12/08/2015 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    I need some advices how I get a chance to send my daughter to be schooling there. I lived in kiritimati Island closed to hawaii, but i have a plan for my daugther to send there to gain better education for her future. Thank you very much.

  7. Matthew Fong 09/19/2015 at 5:30 am - Reply

    Hi Vern,

    I came across your website while researching living in Hawaii. I have spent the past 10 years living in Thailand (Bang Saen, Chonburi) and am considering moving to Hawaii to raise my young family. Compared to International Schools in Thailand, do you really think Hawaii public schools are that poor? I had a brief stint working at an IB-accredited international school in Thailand and would NOT consider it a good environment to raise my son in. Kids come and go often, so there is very little consistency. The students consisted mostly of wealthy Thais. I also attended a post-graduate MBA program at Chulalongkorn University and was not too impressed with the level of critical thinking that existed in the classroom. Cheating was rampant and I don’t believe Thai education nurtures the correct values. Right now I’m mostly interested in good primary schools in Hawaii (that will last me at least the next few years). Do you believe the difference in primary school education in Hawaii requires private school education (and tuition)?


    • Vern Lovic 09/19/2015 at 4:31 pm - Reply

      Hi Matthew,

      I also live in Thailand, and I’ve also considered many times about the education system here vs. mainland USA and Hawaii. Personally, I would never take my kids to Hawaii to live if they had to go to public school. In public school you have kids of parents of all income brackets, except the higher ones. What that means is, prejudice rages throughout the public schools. Hawaii is a real melting point of culture – there are people from Japan, Philippines, Thailand (a few), Korea, China, locals born in Hawaii with or without Hawaiian blood, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, Micronesia, mainland USA, Brazil, etc. It’s supposed to be a melting pot, but in the schools I think it’s more like a boiling pot. Public schools have some great teachers and administration that are trying to straighten out the problems between kids of different races and backgrounds, cultures, and it’s impossible. I think if you can’t put your kids in a good private school, don’t consider moving to Hawaii.

      I think it’s just not fair to them.

      With Thailand schools, I’m up in the air. Sure there is not any sort of standard that could be compared to the USA, UK, or probably another 30 top countries in the world. My daughter is young so at the moment we’re OK with her learning here. School is just fun at this point. I don’t have this notion that kids need to work their asses off in primary school. It’s just for getting some of the basics. Mostly I think it is for social reasons. Learning to get along with others. Sharing. Helping. Competition.

      To make sure our daughter learns what she needs to, we teach her at home. We’ll send her to private classes later – in high school if we happen to still be in Thailand. I think we’ll probably move by that time. Whether we move to Hawaii or not will depend if we have the $800 or so per month to send her to a decent school.

      Please strongly consider the same!

      Cheers man,


      • Matthew Fong 09/20/2015 at 4:21 am - Reply

        Thanks Vern for the response. So you home school your daughter? I, like you, aren’t tied to a specific location for a wage, so I have flexibility in moving to different areas, or even countries depending on my liking and what I think is best for my family. Does your daughter speak Thai? I found an English language nursery school (Filipino teachers, run by North American missionaries) nearby, but it only works for the next 2 years.

        I googled a bit and does rank a few of the public schools in Oaha as 10 out of 10, but I’m unsure if it’s nationwide rankings or just within HI. Do you have any idea of the the cost comparison for accredited international schools in Thailand vs Hawaii. Punahou I think charges like $19k/year vs $14k/year for the nearby international school. Do you think a school like Momilani Elementary would be OK to send a child up until 5th or 6th grade?… and then move to a private school like Punahou? Do the problems you know about in public school in Hawaii exist at the primary school level? or more at the High school level. Thanks for the great blog.

  8. Denise 07/29/2015 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyed your lighthearted overview and insights. I became confused however when I followed the enclosed link for a list of ‘best schools’ as the link confines the analysis to high schools only…no primary. I would like to review any information regarding the public primary schools.
    Thank you,

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