Wednesday, January 10, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Schools: Lawmakers face tough choices

The debate shaping up in the upcoming legislative session over funding for Hawaii public schools has swiftly brought home the point that equally well-meaning people can seriously disagree.

Case in point: Of $164 million in increased spending requested by the Department of Education, Gov. Ben Cayetano has recommended that lawmakers fund just 9 percent of it. And yet Cayetano has requested money for projects, such as more classroom computers, that the department didn’t ask for.

Both sides have considerable justification for their positions. Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu argues that substantial increased spending is needed if the system is to capitalize on what (we hope) are early signs of improvement.

Thus his frustration shows when he politely acknowledges Cayetano’s preference to spend on classroom computers while pointing out that they come at the expense of "severely underfunded DOE-priority items."

Like Cayetano, we might question some of those priorities. But it makes little sense to place Hawaii’s hopes for education improvement in LeMahieu’s hands and then order him to implement someone else’s pet projects. In particular, Cayetano’s denial of funding for standards-based education seems to reject LeMahieu’s fundamental game plan.

To be sure, it’s part of LeMahieu’s job description to advocate optimal funding for education, and finding the money is not. As Cayetano only too well understands, most of the $164 million LeMahieu wants would have to be diverted from other state spending that already has been cut substantially in recent years.

Thus lawmakers should listen closely to both Cayetano and LeMahieu, and then hammer out a position that probably will satisfy neither.

Yet no matter how deep the disagreement, it’s already clear that LeMahieu, Cayetano and most lawmakers completely agree that education spending is this year’s top priority.

This battle over priorities must not derail that objective.

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