With Lingle win, school board debate to resurface
By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer
One of Lingle's key education proposals which would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters would create locally elected boards for Kaua'i, Maui, the Big Island, East Honolulu and Leeward, Central and Windward O'ahu.
Similar proposals died in the Legislature last session, although the idea had the support of Republicans and Democrats, and appeared to resonate with the public.
An unlikely alliance of the teachers' union, the Board of Education, the governor and the DOE bureaucracy opposed the bill, while nearly all lawmakers wanted to see some type of change. The deal-breaker appeared to be in the Senate, with Senate Education Committee Chairman Norman Sakamoto, D-16th (Moanalua, Salt Lake), instead proposing a task force to study the issue further.
But just as the state's incoming governor supports the idea, Democrats who supported the proposal last year appear to have stopped pushing for the change.
"I believe we have an obligation to listen to the new governor to see why she thinks this will make the system better," said Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-34th (Waimalu, Newtown, Pearl City). "I have some strong concerns about breaking up the school system."
Takai echoed criticisms raised during the governor's race that local school boards would cost more and create more bureaucracy, and noted that Democrats have enough votes to override a veto.
Some education experts, including schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto, also have said they have not seen any research that suggests such a change would improve student achievement.
But University of Hawai'i adjunct professor Mary Anne Raywid said the Department of Education is too large and that Neighbor Islands resent the administrative orders coming down from Honolulu, two problems that local control could solve.
"I think until we fundamentally alter the organization, we're not going to get anything better coming out of it," Raywid said.
The measure would have to pass through the House and Senate before going on to voters in the form of a constitutional amendment. The earliest it could come to a statewide vote is 2004.
Rep. Ken Ito, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the revival of momentum for a switch to local school boards depends on the position the new school board takes on the issue, the education committee assignments in the Legislature and the friendliness of the House and Senate education committee chairs to the idea.
Republican lawmakers do not have enough votes by themselves to bring bills bottled up in committee to a floor debate. Constitutional amendments must be approved by a two-thirds majority of each house before they can go to the voters.
"These constitutional amendments have to be nonpartisan because you need a two-thirds majority. That has to be in the equation," Ito said. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens. Education is really high on everyone's agenda."
Randy Hitz, dean of the College of Education at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, said another discussion of the Board of Education's governance may take years.
"We can spend a lot of time on the reorganization piece (of Lingle's plan) and not necessarily get anywhere," Hitz said. "There are several other issues that are worth concentrating on. I think that all of them come under the category of providing more support for teachers. I think the bigger picture and what Linda is trying to say is that we need to get as much money as we can down to the school level and provide more support for teachers. Most of the teachers shortage is not a supply problem; it's a retention problem."
On Maui, the race for school board between Mary Cochran and Kelly King turned into something of a referendum on local school boards. It was the only race where BOE governance was a major issue.
But King, who made the local school board issue the centerpiece of her campaign, was defeated. Cochran instead argued that the problems with the DOE have less to do with governance than getting services to schools.