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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 21, 2001

Volcanic Ash
Politicians are finally getting it

By David Shapiro

There are promising signs that current political leaders are finally learning what their forebears always knew — that education is the key to economic diversity and individual opportunity.

Emerging from the economic gloom of the past two months is a consensus that our public schools and the University of Hawai'i are in crisis and need serious attention.

It's welcome news after a punishing year that included strikes by public school teachers and UH faculty, the departures of former UH president Kenneth Mortimer and schools chief Paul LeMahieu, and threats of a court takeover of the schools for failure to comply with the Felix decree on special education.

Last month's special session of the Legislature did little to right our economy, but the prominence of education on the agenda was encouraging.

The only major initiative approved by lawmakers was $150 million for a new UH medical school at Kaka'ako, which hopefully will become a hub for biomedical and healthcare businesses.

The $60 million approved by the Legislature to rebuild our dilapidated public schools, far short of the $600 million requested by Gov. Ben Cayetano, isn't nearly enough to do the job.

But it's enough for a good start if lawmakers back it up with bigger appropriations in their regular session beginning in January.

Key legislators are talking about reforming the cumbersome governance that defeats all efforts to improve our schools. Power is divided among the Legislature, governor and Board of Education, with nobody fully accountable for results.

Proposed fixes range from removing bureaucratic impediments holding back schools to breaking up the centralized statewide education system.

Rep. Ken Ito, chairman of the House Education Committee, rightly points out that big changes could require constitutional amendments and take years to enact.

It's worth taking the time to do it right. Successful reform must generate from an inclusive and public process.

The Board of Education has wisely decided to wait for the turmoil to settle down before replacing LeMahieu, who resigned amid reports of a personal relationship with a Felix contractor.

No superintendent could succeed in this politically charged environment. A competent caretaker like interim chief Pat Hamamoto may be just what is needed to get the schools back on even keel and ready for the next charge forward.

A potential dark cloud is the legislative investigation of Felix spending, in which lawmakers seem determined to pick a foolish fight with U.S. District Judge David Ezra. If they provoke the court to take over the schools, it could set back reform for years.

At the University of Hawai'i, one of the smartest things new president Evan Dobelle did was to send in a consultant to scope out the situation for him even before he arrived.

Consultant Linda Campanella's final report to the Board of Regents last week depicts a broken-down system stifled by a "can't do" culture and acceptance of mediocrity — no surprise at a university demoralized by a decade of cutbacks.

As grim as the report sounds, it gets important issues in the open and points the way to improvement.

Dobelle's notion that UH should become a key driver of the state's economic diversification is gaining support.

He's put administrative staff on notice that change must come and is courting faculty support with promises to increase their salaries and voice in decision-making.

Fixes in the schools will cost money that will be in short supply as the Legislature struggles to deal with shrinking revenues. But they're fixes we can no longer ignore if we ever hope to get our economy on a stronger, more diversified footing.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net