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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 22, 2002

School governance: Begin by defining roles

The flurry of activity at the state Capitol over Hawai'i's public school system could signal good news for education in this state, but only if the action takes on focus and direction.

Education writer Jennifer Hiller reports that there is a large stack of proposals at the Legislature this year that would change the governance structure for our public schools. Some — particularly Republicans — are focusing on decentralizing the system.

Others, including Democrat Brian Schatz, are focused on rationalizing the governance structure primarily by reducing the governor's authority.

The common thread in many of these proposals is frustration with a system in which everyone, and thus no one, is in charge. It comes down to this: Who should be making the decisions about what is best for Hawai'i's public school students?

From a philosophical point of view, one can argue that decisions should be made as close to the classroom as possible. That is, it starts with the teacher, goes up to the school administration, then district administration and finally to a central department led by the elected board.

This is fine, except it ignores the political reality of a situation in which the governor has to balance the budget and lawmakers are responsible both for allocating tax resources and responding to constituent demands on education as well as everything else.

Ultimately, the answer to our education problems has less to do with how the governance system is structured than it does in how each of the interested parties plays its role. Simply calling for the dismantling of our centralized statewide system won't solve many problems; at least, it would create new problems to replace those we already have.

So if the flurry of activity this year results in a clarification of roles, it will be valuable indeed. Newly appointed Superintendent Pat Hamamoto has, in some ways, moved ahead of the legislative process by rearranging the administrative structure so that it emphasizes school "complexes" (groupings of grade and high schools) over the existing system.

This is important because it turns the face of administrative responsibility away from the central district and toward individual schools.

Hawai'i is on the verge of launching stage one of a "Marshall Plan" for public schools through a massive program of rebuilding and repairing our worn physical infrastructure. It is time now to begin work on stage two: rebuilding a governance system so that it fits with 21st-century realities.