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Posted on: Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Hawai'i educators see pluses, minuses in Bush plan

By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer

President Bush’s education plan could deliver more money to Hawaii’s public schools for reading and math, but might also widen the gap between successful and struggling schools.

In general, Hawaii educators and legislators reacted favorably to Bush’s plan, which makes education his administration’s priority and aims to increase resources for schools.

"I think in general it touches the buttons that could bring some improvements to us," said Rep. Patsy Mink, (D-Neighbor Islands, Rural Oahu).

However, Mink and others strongly oppose the suggestion of a voucher plan that would let parents use federal money to pull their children out of poorly performing public schools.

Under Bush’s plan, federal aid of $1,500 per student could be used for private-school tuition if a public school fails to meet national standards within three years.

Vouchers have never had widespread support in Hawaii, with many seeing the initiative as a drain on public education.

"We can’t afford to have money diverted from our public school system," said state Senate Education Committee Chairman Norman Sakamoto, D-16th (Moanalua, Salt Lake).

Private schools too costly

The cost of private schools in Hawaii also could make the proposal unworkable.

"I know of no private school in the state of Hawaii where a child can attend for $1,500, so it’s simply a subversion of funding into private schools, making it more difficult for public schools to succeed," said John Friedman, president of the Hawaii Parents Teachers Students Association.

Bush’s call for more money for reading and math drew an enthusiastic response. But in return for the money, Bush is asking for more accountability. His plan signals greater scrutiny of Hawaii’s "poverty schools," those that receive federal Title I money because of a high percentage of students from poor families.

Bush wants Title I schools to receive more federal cash, but if they are still failing after three years, they could lose some of it.

Last year, three-quarters of Hawaii’s 148 Title I schools failed to improve student performance despite additional help.

Bush’s plan to measure progress by testing students every year from third through eighth grade also received a mixed response.

Sakamoto said annual testing could give decision-makers a better handle on programs that are failing. But educators said it could be expensive and disruptive to learning.

And Mink said she believes an over-reliance on test scores would punish schools in remote areas that already struggle with fewer resources and have trouble recruiting teachers.

"That’s what I fear. If you base everything on test scores, then the poorer schools are just going to go down the tubes," she said. "And if, on top of that, you say they’re not performing and you can take students out, then that’s like a death knell to schools in the outlying areas."

Proposal forgets immigrants

Palolo Elementary principal Velma Omura said losing Title I money would hurt her school. Palolo uses the money for a reading program, which is showing results, she said. But Bush’s proposal does not take into account the conditions in many schools, she said.

"For many of our schools here, we have a lot of immigrant families coming in at any time of the school year, and to say a school is underperforming when you have a high number of immigrant families is really unfair," she said.

Forty percent of Omura’s students don’t speak English as their first language.

However, Omura and others in the school system said Hawaii is ready for any increase in federal scrutiny because of its own initiatives in standards and accountability.

"If there is going to be a focus on under-performing schools from the federal level ... that scrutiny couldn’t be any greater than the scrutiny going on within our own schools right now," said Windward District superintendent Lea Albert.

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