By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
President Bushs education plan could deliver more money to Hawaiis 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 Bushs plan, which makes education his administrations 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 Bushs 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 cant 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 its 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.
Bushs 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 Hawaiis "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 Hawaiis 148 Title I schools failed to improve student performance despite additional help.
Bushs 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.
"Thats 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 theyre not performing and you can take students out, then thats 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 Bushs 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 Omuras students dont 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 couldnt be any greater than the scrutiny going on within our own schools right now," said Windward District superintendent Lea Albert.
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