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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 1, 2001

Volcanic Ash
Yes, it is all about the kids

By David Shapiro

It's all about the kids, insist Gov. Ben Cayetano and public school teachers as they battle over terms of a bonus for teachers with advanced degrees.

Well, let them make it so — not only by settling this dispute before serious damage is done but by putting aside lingering acrimony and getting on with the more important business of reforming our public schools to meet acceptable standards of performance.

One school year has already been disrupted by a teachers' strike. To allow continuing animosity to derail the new school year just as it starts is reckless.

Mistrust between Cayetano and the teachers runs deep. Teachers have taken to calling their strike last spring a "governor's strike" more than a teachers' strike. This is inaccurate and unfair.

Teachers went into negotiations demanding some of the highest pay in the nation for presiding over classrooms that stand closer to the bottom of the national rankings in student achievement.

Their unrealistic expectations were fed by weak legislators willing to capitulate to their demands with no questions asked. This contributed to the strike and its duration as much as anything Cayetano did.

In the end, Cayetano engineered a fair deal that made teachers reasonably happy at a cost to taxpayers of a bit more than half of what legislators were ready to pay.

The governor should have quit while he was ahead. He lost the high ground and enraged teachers by refusing to pay professional development bonuses contained in the agreement for two years, claiming bonuses were only intended for one year.

Whatever the intent of negotiators, the agreement that was sent to teachers for ratification — after it was reviewed and approved by the state — clearly stated that bonuses were for two years.

Chief state negotiator Davis Yogi's argument that the agreement was subject to further review by the state is dubious. Reputable employers don't renege on agreements they ask employees to ratify.

Cayetano's negotiators messed up, and it falls on him to make it right. The one-time cost of a few million dollars is minuscule in the context of more than $300 million in public employee pay raises approved this year. It's downright cheap compared to the long-term cost of letting the bad feelings spoil another school year and delay academic improvement.

As for the teachers, they need to drop their self-righteous indignation and accept that their pay must relate more to the achievement of their students than to their political clout in the Legislature.

Certainly we can't blame poor student performance entirely on teachers. It's a system riddled with dysfunction down the line, starting with a clueless Board of Education that thinks this period of turmoil is just a dandy time to ignite a foolish controversy over teaching creationism as science.

But teachers stand at the front of the class every day and can't wash their hands of the system's poor results.

During the strike, teachers ran TV commercials about colleagues who moved out of state to find better-paying jobs.

What the ads didn't say is that those teachers mostly moved into school systems that deliver better results, require teachers to spend more time in the classroom, hold teachers accountable for their performance and that of their schools, reward achievement over seniority and don't allow union work rules to stand in the way of needed reform.

Few would begrudge our teachers top dollar right here in Hawai'i if they helped give us such top-notch schools. It's all about the kids.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.