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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, December 14, 2001

Island Voices
Re-examine state education system

By Terry Bosgra

"All beginnings are hopeful," said the principal of Somerville College in Oxford, to his new crop of students in 1944 at a time when the war was ravaging Europe. It is likely that Paul LeMahieu expressed that same sentiment when he took his seat as superintendent of the Department of Education here in Honolulu. And that dream has now been shattered.

Once more we look for a new miracle person to give us that therapeutic remedy that might lead us out of the fog. Would we not do better to ask ourselves, "Is the current system fixable?" The retrograde practices of the hippies in the 1960s, by not bathing and showering, resulted in numerous diseases. Subsequently the medical profession concluded that for true reform to begin there must be a "relearning" of basic and fundamental hygiene, starting from zero. Perhaps the time has come for our school system to start from zero and begin a relearning process. The concept is not new. In the mid-1980s, the New Zealand government asked the following questions:

1. How is it that the public education system has failed us? Answer: no accountability.

2. What is the current system costing us and where does the money go? Answer: 30 percent to the classroom and 70 percent to administrative overhead.

3. How long shall we continue to accept a failed system? Answer: no longer.

4. If we change, who will be our adversaries? Answer: Teacher unions, professional educators, associations and a whole assortment of advocacy groups to the left.

5. If we improve it, who will the primary beneficiaries be? Answer: the parents.

6. How will we do it and make it cost effective? Answer: give control to the parents, eliminate the 30 percent and put the 70 percent in the classroom.

7. If we want to buy the best education, does it make any difference where we buy it? Answer: no. If the private sector is better, then let's go there.

Then in 1987, with strong and determined leadership, the Labor Party (that was in control at the time in New Zealand), made a massive reform in its educational system. It was not without bumps in the road, but the overall result was a sweeping success. The Parliament abolished all laws relating to education and started anew. Now all schools are run by parents, who elect a board of trustees to oversee each school. Every child may now go to any school of his or her choice. A few schools (as was feared) closed for lack of students, but the more enterprising schools picked up the properties and the students. by some measures, private schools were considered 15 to 20 percent better in quality education, but that is no longer so. Public or private schools are now equal in quality.

In the mid-1980s about 15 percent of the children attended private schools, largely operated by Catholic or Anglican churches. Some are Protestant and a few are just private schools. In 1987 the government took the position and said to the parents, "Do you want to educate your children Jewish, Anglican, Baptist, or Catholic? Do you want creation, evolution, values or no values taught in the classroom? None of these are a concern of the government. That is a choice only the parents must make. You pick the school.

Now it is 2001, fourteen years later, and what has happened? New Zealand can boast one of the finest educational systems in the world. Fifteen percent still attend private schools and 85 percent go to public schools, virtually no change from 1987. And the 20 percent quality gap has disappeared. So perhaps you say, "Why have a choice if it is seldom exercised?" The fact that the choice was there, forced the public schools to upgrade, if teachers wanted to keep their job, the school would need to attract students. Having lived here in Honolulu for forty years, I can assure you that our school situation has many similarities to that of New Zealand in the mid-1980s. They had a strong Labor Government, dominated by the unions. The public schools functioned well below acceptable standards.

So my question is simply this, "When and who is courageous enough to ask the tough questions and willing to initiate a reformation?' If education is one of the most important experiences in my child's life, they why should I (as a parent) not have a choice where my child goes to school?

My children are finished with the Hawai'i school system, but I am also a grandparent and am firmly convinced that it is not an issue of "if" but "when" we get to enjoy such an experience here. Just as Communism in the East failed to survive the technological revolution, so will our over-regulated bureaucratic system also fail to endure. Privatization is now discussed on both sides of the aisle and in my opinion, the sooner we begin asking the questions that New Zealand struggled with, the better it will be for the youngsters. There are cracks in the bureaucratic wall and the bricks are beginning to fall.

Terry Bosgra came to Hawai'i from New Zealand in 1980.