It'll take courage on schools
By David Shapiro
Hawai'i's teacher shortage is concentrated in Leeward O'ahu and on the Neighbor Islands.
The same with the state's failures in special education. Most districts falling short of federal standards are in Leeward O'ahu and on the Neighbor Islands.
Then there's the teacher who defends the poor national test scores of Hawai'i students by outrageously suggesting that, if we took certain Leeward and Neighbor Island districts out of the equation, our scores wouldn't be so bad.
So much for the central promise of our statewide school system that kids in poor and remote areas like Nanakuli and Kaunakakai are assured the same quality of education as kids in Hawai'i Kai and Manoa.
As Hawai'i's public schools bumble from one crisis to the next, we need to rethink whether Hawai'i's unwieldy system of centralized education the only one of its kind in the nation has outlived any purpose it served.
Who is to say that Leeward and Neighbor Island school districts couldn't do better at recruiting teachers, providing special education and improving student scores if they controlled their own resources and set their own policies? Surely, they couldn't do worse.
From the hubbub over this year's teachers' strike, you'd think teacher pay is the biggest problem in our schools. It is not. Public education in Hawai'i is stifled by a disjointed chain of command with too many cooks in the kitchen, nobody clearly in charge and little accountability for results.
It has made the Department of Education a sluggish, cover-your-butt bureaucracy often less engaged in successful innovation than in spinning out plausible excuses for its failures.
The elected Board of Education presides over our public schools, setting policy and appointing the superintendent. But funding is controlled by the Legislature, which decides how much money the DOE gets and, too often, how it's spent.
Collective bargaining is run by the governor, leaving the school board and superintendent with little control of payroll expenses and vital work rules.
This system will never work until we clear out the kitchen.
Gov. Ben Cayetano wants to bring the schools under the executive branch with an appointed school board, but that just further concentrates power in a way no other state does.
Others propose to cut the governor and Legislature out of the picture by giving the elected BOE a reliable source of dedicated funding and responsibility for its own collective bargaining. This has appeal, but we'd still be stuck with a centralized bureaucracy that can't seem to deliver for outlying districts.
The most radical change would be to break up the statewide system into smaller and more manageable independent districts each with equitable funding and its own elected board.
If school boards had real power and were elected closer to home, perhaps they would draw better candidates and more voter attention. Maybe control and accountability are best placed in the hands of the local communities, parents, teachers and administrators who have the biggest stake in their schools.
There are no easy answers, only hard questions. And the certainty that if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll keep getting what we're getting.
In next year's gubernatorial and legislative elections, we'll hear candidates talking a lot about education. We should listen most closely to those who will commit to meaningful change, even if it means giving up some of their own power and bucking special interests whose support they covet.
Candidates who say they can make this hopelessly broken system work without fundamental change are either deluding themselves or counting on the short memory of voters.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org