Thursday, January 25, 2001
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Posted on: Thursday, January 25, 2001

Bush education plans may benefit Hawai'i

In some ways, the education plan outlined by President Bush this week fits nicely with the school reform efforts already under way within the state Department of Education.

But the details of the plan remain unclear. And the proposal that would let some families take a chunk of federal education money and go elsewhere with it — to private tutoring or a private school — is unlikely to find favor in the Islands.

That plan walks and talks much like a voucher system, which would be a tough sell here. Bush prefers to call it by another name, but the fundamental idea remains the same.

A voucher system (using that name for the sake of argument) has several major drawbacks that should be particularly vivid to Hawaii residents. This state already has a disproportionately high percentage of families who have chosen to put their children in private schools.

While they have not taken any public money with them, the exodus of motivated, generally more affluent families has had a measurable impact on the public school system. It has tended to "hollow out" the school system from within, taking away those families who have much to contribute.

To the degree a voucher system fueled that process, it would be harmful to our struggling public schools.

There is an argument that, in the aggregate, every student who leaves the public school system "saves" that much to be spent on the remaining students. But it doesn’t precisely work that way. School budgets are not literally allocated on a student-by-student basis. And if enough students leave a particular school, the number of teachers and other resources available are reduced as well.

Some Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Hawaii Rep. Patsy Mink, see a fair amount of virtue in the Bush plan. They are undoubtedly looking at the "reward" side of the coin — those portions that would deliver more federal money to under-performing schools.

And local school officials will endorse the emphasis on measurable standards — although we would argue the measuring tool should be designed locally, not nationally.

So Hawaii could benefit from Bush’s emphasis on education, if the plan ends up focusing on building up our existing public school system rather than helping families abandon it.

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