Posted on: Saturday, March 10, 2001
The Connecticut choice
By Mike Markrich
In 1986 the people of the state of Connecticut decided that their public schools were not working for them. They faced problems that are familiar to the people of Hawaii: marginal test scores, problems with drugs and alcohol abuse, a large influential segment of the population (12 percent) that had opted for private schools, a teachers union fearful of change, a politically entrenched educational bureaucracy and a public, weary of tax increases, that no longer believed that government could deliver educational services in the way that private schools could.
Today, the Connecticut public schools are considered the finest in the nation, with average SAT test scores in some public schools that rival those of the most expensive private schools in Hawaii. The story of how they accomplished this is one that Hawaii should heed.
Basically the people of Connecticut felt that their schools were mediocre and that they could do better," said Tom Murphy, an assistant to the commissioner of education for Connecticut. We began with the premise that the center of the universe for education in Connecticut is teacher-student interaction, and we passed legislation that would bring the best and the brightest teachers into the profession, would support them and at the same time establish their accountability.
This was not mere rhetoric. This year the average salary for teachers in Connecticut is $51,000, with teachers with 12 years of experience and a masters degree earning $62,000. Teachers with Ph.D.s earn in the mid-$70,000 to $80,000 range. Beginning principals (usually drawn from the ranks of senior teachers) earn $75,000 and senior principals at the high school level can earn over $100,000.
But these wage increases were not one-sided. In exchange for these higher salaries, the teachers had to make concessions. Accountability and review criteria that are anathema to most teachers unions (including Hawaiis) were implemented. In Connecticut, the teachers and the principals in the school are accountable for the success or failure of their students. Their review criteria are based, in part, on the rise or fall of test scores in the district in which they teach.
How did the Connecticut system convince the teachers to go along with the changes? At first there was reluctance, acknowledged Murphy. But with the State Education Enhancement Act of 1986, we coupled the highest teacher salaries in the country with rigorous certification and competency tests. We grandfathered in old teachers and now expect all new teachers to meet the standards.
The unions objected at first, said Murphy. But when they saw that their membership was benefiting, they went along.
Because the people who worked on upgrading the school system knew there was little point in paying teachers more if they had to deal every day with disruptive children, a commitment was made to spend the money to make the environment in which teachers work conducive to education. This meant repairing and upgrading the physical infrastructure of the schools as well as supporting the students families. Under their system, the principals report to a local superintendent appointed by a locally elected board of education. The members of the district school boards in turn report to a state board of education made up of citizens (including private and public school teachers) appointed by the governor.
The basic premise of their system is that public school children and teachers are a state priority. They believe that the best way to help children learn is by creating schools that communities support.
The Hawaii system
When the missionaries first came to Hawaii from their native New England, they accorded teachers status second only to clergy. Initially, there were schools teaching children on every island, with a special royal school in Honolulu for the children of chiefs and another for the children of merchants. The school system was centralized in 1864 under the Kingdom of Hawaii and kept that way when the Democrats came to power in 1954. At the 1968 constitutional convention, a popularly elected school board was created to balance the power of the-then-all-powerful school superintendent.
Most superintendents were politically appointed. Between 1840 and 1967, with the exception of a few Native Hawaiians, nearly all of the superintendents were white men. Since 1967, reflecting the shifting political power in Hawaii, six of the last nine were AJA males. Despite the large number of female workers in the Department of Education, only one woman, Donnis Thompson, an African American appointed from the University of Hawaii, ever became superintendent (1982-1984).
Until the last superintendent, Herman Aizawa, bravely asked to be evaluated on the strength of student achievement, there was never a correlation between student success and the tenure and choice of school superintendents. The current superintendent, Paul LeMahieu, is among the few to have been competitively selected on the basis of merit from a large pool of qualified applicants outside Hawaii. Since the superintendents manage under the thumb of the governor, the public workers unions and the teachers, a pattern emerged. In response to demands from constituents, politicians would ask for smaller classrooms, new textbooks or school repairs. However, in this highly politicized system, controversial decisions often were deferred and sometimes never made. Eventually, the schools became increasingly dysfunctional.
As a consequence, teachers, rather than be considered as complainers, sometimes work under terrible conditions. Last year $9.6 million was allocated for repairs and $41.4 million for new construction in the 250 public schools in Hawaii, most of which were built cheaply in the 1950s and 60s. According to the state Department of Accounting and General Services, there is a $600 million backlog of repairs to be done. If the $290 million for repairs and new schools pledged by Gov. Ben Cayetano is appropriated it will be a great help.
What kind of message does that send to public students and teachers? Fern Elementary teacher Diane Aoki said this: Last year I went to a seminar at Kamehameha and I was struck by how nice everything was. I am so used to things being broken or unavailable.
The problem is not that superintendents or political leaders do not want to do things. But the needs are vast and the state does not have the money or the management flexibility to meet the needs of children and still have the funds available for salary increases, the Felix Consent Decree and everything else the state needs to do.
It is a sad sign of the times that last April, a federal accounting error over four years resulted in a $15 million windfall to the Department of Education. Instead of making certain that the money was made available for badly needed education programs, the money was taken from the DOE and put into the state general fund.
There seems no way under the current setup to make Hawaiis children a real priority.
None of what Connecticut has done comes cheap. The people of the state of Connecticut spend $6 billion annually (including federal funds and local property taxes) on a system with 556,000 pupils. By contrast, in 1999 the state of Hawaii spent approximately $1.1 billion (in all funds) on 183,635 students. That works out to a little under $6,000 per year per student in Hawaii and close to $11,000 per student per year in Connecticut. Clearly, the spending differential is at least in part because Hawaii lacks the option for local funding of its schools.
What Hawaii must do
We should decentralize the school system just like Connecticut and 48 other states. The problem with a centralized system is that it is unable to respond in any kind of immediate way to the needs of different neighborhoods and demographic groups. This is especially true in a state with island communities.
Instead of our present system, each district should elect its own advisory school board and the members of each board should report to a board of education made up of educational experts (including teachers) appointed by the governor. At that point, there would be no need for a single elected statewide board of education.
We should support Superintendent LeMahieus efforts to modernize the schools. Although he was given a competency grade of just above standard by the current school board, no one has worked harder to update an outmoded and unhappy system.
Hawaii schools need a strategic plan as well as a long-term financial commitment for their improvement. The people of Connecticut were willing to pay what it took to put children first. Like Hawaii, they too had gone through a transition where earlier groups of immigrants had used public schools and politics as a springboard for better careers. But unlike Hawaii, they did not abandon support for the public schools when other peoples children were affected.
How were they convinced to put money back into the pot for the public good? Murphy explains that it was self-interest: We want all of our students to have high academic skills, which translates into economic success for our our whole economy. We also realize that we are an aging society and that some of the people who are now in our public schools may very likely be our caretakers. Do we want those people who are to be our caretakers to be bitter, angry and resentful or to be happy and well adjusted and share values with us?
The truth is we all have a stake in the educational success of those with less opportunity because they will impact our quality of life.
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