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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, April 25, 2001

Strike settlement may signal historic change

If a way could be found to capture and bottle the feeling emanating from yesterday's strike settlement news conference, Hawai'i's public school system could be well on its way to greatness.

Perhaps it was plain weariness or relief that the 20-day strike had ended, but there was a powerful sense both sides felt they gained something important in this strike — not for themselves, particularly, but for public education in Hawai'i.

It is vitally important that this aura of good will, however tenuous, be preserved as the state and the teachers sit down to make the theory behind this agreement work in reality.

And make no mistake: Converting theory into reality is far more important in this contract than in most. Generally, the crux of any collective bargaining agreement is money: how much will be paid and who will get it? On this front, the teachers won an important victory: the restoration of annual increments that automatically boost the pay of teachers as they gain seniority.

But ultimately, these are mechanical issues that can be answered mechanically — if the money is there, it happens.

The only work left is for the accountants.

But the contract reached this week goes far beyond mere numbers. It includes vague but important agreements to strive for entirely new ways of managing our school system and the people who work in it.

Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said yesterday he compared this agreement to other landmark teacher agreements around the country and concluded that Hawai'i's is far superior.

That may be so, but only if both sides demonstrate a sincere commitment to making it so. Without such commitment, the agreement reached by exhausted negotiators in the wee hours of the morning is only so much paper.

What has been launched here in a variety of subtle ways is a plan to give teachers a smorgasbord of opportunities to improve themselves, and a promise to pay for such improvement by accelerated movement up the pay scale.

But this new emphasis on professional development comes with the implied promise of greater accountability. That is, in exchange for more opportunities for professionalism and pay comes the responsibility to improve performance.

This will be challenging. How will performance be measured? And will the expectations be matched by the levels of training and pay provided?

The impressive solidarity and energy shown by the teachers in this strike show they will not be taken lightly.

Looked at this way, the collective bargaining agreement is only an early step toward reform of public education in Hawai'i.

But if yesterday's show of good will and commitment can be nurtured and allowed to spread, we may come to remember the Teachers' Strike of 2001 as the start of a historic (and positive) shift in Hawai'i's public education system.