By David Shapiro
It's disappointing to see another legislative session pass without major education reform, but state senators were right to pull back their support for splitting the statewide Board of Education into seven local boards.
Hawai'i's centralized school system is the only one of its kind in the nation, and breaking it up may well be the most promising way to improve student achievement and put our public schools on par with the best in the country.
But lawmakers simply hadn't laid the groundwork to send the constitutional amendment to voters this year.
The good energy behind school reform early in the year petered out as the Legislature became bogged down in traffic cameras and budget woes. We were left with a bill that was vague on key details and made it to conference committee without nearly enough open public discussion.
The constitutional amendment faced a wall of opposition from the Cayetano administration, the current Board of Education, the public school bureaucracy and unions representing teachers and other school employees.
With no similar organized lobby lined up to advocate its passage, chances of voter ratification in November were doubtful.
It's easy to sympathize with exasperated House members who believe that public education in Hawai'i is in such trouble that we had nothing to lose by trying something different.
But we did have something to lose. If the constitutional amendment failed at the ballot box, it would have set back school reform a lot longer than waiting another year to put the matter before the new governor, new Legislature and new school board whose support is vital to successful reform.
If we're going to change the governance of our schools in such a big way, we need to take the time to get the details right because we're going to have to live with the results for a long while.
Public education in Hawai'i is suffocated by an unwieldy chain of command that divides responsibility for education among the governor, Legislature and Board of Education without giving any of them clear authority to act or accountability for results.
There are three basic options for bringing accountability to education, and we must fully commit to one:
- Maintain the current elected Board of Education, but give it a dedicated source of reliable funding to run the schools without interference from the governor and Legislature.
- Bring decision-making closer to home by breaking the centralized system into seven or more districts, each with its own elected school board, superintendent and equitable source of funding.
- Return direct responsibility and accountability for education to the governor and Legislature by making the Board of Education an appointed body.
Board members, administrators and teachers resist needed change because they find it comfortable and convenient to work in a centralized system with murky lines of accountability.
But they've had ample opportunity to make this hopelessly flawed system work and have failed. Their comfort and convenience can no longer be of primary concern.
The school-reform spotlight now shifts to the fall election, especially the pivotal race for governor. Voters are looking to candidates for specific ideas to revive our schools and for a consensus-building process to achieve the changes.
Will candidates step up to this important challenge, or will they play special-interest politics by pandering to groups seeking to control the education debate to their own selfish benefit?
It will provide a good measure of the leadership skills candidates claim to possess.
David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.