07/17/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Creating Opportunities in the Aloha State

As I watch and listen to recent national conversations about education reform, I can't help but think about my family. My youngest sister Nikki teaches math at Pearl City High School, my wife Sami and I are products of public schools, and we send our two children to public schools.

Reflecting back, I was fortunate to have earned a swimming scholarship to the University of Hawaii. I know first-hand how essential good teachers are to our communities and our country. I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve the public in the Hawaii State House for 20 years because of the education I received in Hawaii.

It is vital that we continue to create opportunity for our future generations. This opportunity is threatened as lawmakers in DC continue to fight unproductive, partisan battles over issues such as education standards and student loans.

The U.S. ranks in the middle to bottom of industrialized nations in educational performance. This was documented worldwide with the recent 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test scores. American students rank 31st in math, 24th in science, and 21st in reading globally.

Therefore, there is no argument that we, here in Hawaii and throughout our nation, need to invest in our public schools to make them better and more competitive so that all of our students are prepared to be productive members of a global society.

What does investing in education mean? For me, this means starting with early childhood education. Our nation has a responsibility to invest in early childhood education to build the foundation for our children, because early education offers the best opportunity to close the achievement gap.

That's why I applaud Hawaii's P-20 Initiative, a systematic approach to align learning for all students from pre-school age to young adulthood based on international standards, best research practices, and true collaboration among parents, community, schools, and the government. Here in Hawaii, we are committed to providing all students with appropriate learning to contribute and thrive in an increasingly and inter-connected global society.

As our children enter school, I believe that they deserve high standards to prepare for college and career readiness. While international standards level the playing field and help all of our students, I also believe that our teachers and administrators should have the flexibility to create new educational strategies so that each school and each classroom can customize and differentiate to each student based on his/her academic, behavioral and social needs.

Ongoing and continuous learning and growth is the overarching umbrella to ensure measurable learning results. I support accountability in the classroom and the federal government's role in establishing broad guidelines, but believe control needs to remain at the local level. Only through true partnering, collaboration and problem solving, will we together provide learning success for all students.

Very importantly, I believe that teachers like my sister Nikki deserve the resources and support to effectively educate our children. In 2005, I discovered that Hawaii was not participating in part of the U.S. Department of Education Impact Aid Program. I made my voice loud and clear that this was not acceptable, and I'm proud to have won awards for recovering more than $40 million in lost federal funds for Hawaii's public school system.

Investing in education also means helping with the rising cost of a college education. Going to college is no longer optional if our kids hope to succeed in the global economy. Given that most families in Hawaii depend on loans and savings plans for their children's college education, I am proud to support efforts to create opportunities for higher education for all of our students.

That's why, as Chair of the Hawaii House Higher Education Committee, I authored the bill and worked for six years to achieve passage of the Hawaii College Savings Program. This 529 College Savings Program allows parents to save money and earn interest tax free for college.

I was appalled when a bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that doubled interest rates and made loan rates variable--it was an outrageous giveaway to big banks that have profited on the backs of our students.

I support the U.S. Department of Education's move to improve the student loan industry and tie up loose ends in the rehabilitation of defaulted student loans. Hawaii's students should have protection from unscrupulous or deceptive acts in the student loan industry, as well as, access to reasonable and affordable payment plans, and I believe that the Department is taking steps in the right direction.

I wholeheartedly support Senator Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) bill to lower interest rates on most federal student loans below four percent. As the Senate plans to vote on this measure, I hope that Congress makes the right decision to support students.

In my campaign for Congress, I'm proud to have the endorsement of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the exclusive bargaining agent representing all faculty members of the University of Hawaii System, as well as the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

I know that, in Congress, I could bridge partisan divides, build coalitions, and make Hawaii a place where all students have a chance to get ahead and succeed. Let's move beyond politics and come together to ensure that Hawaii and our nation provide our students with the best education possible.