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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Education reform foundering

By David Shapiro

There's little real education reform in a disappointing bill moving in the state House of Representatives to create 15 local "school complex" councils to advise the Board of Education on repairs, scheduling and curriculum in our public schools.

The House scheme gives the appearance of change, but it's more of a political solution to preserve the status quo and protect the power of the many vested interests dipping fingers into the education pie in Hawai'i.

Real reform will never happen until we get some of those fingers out of the pie and consolidate authority to fix our schools — and assure full accountability for results.

We can't move forward until elected leaders stop jockeying for political position with hastily conceived half-measures and buckle down to devise a comprehensive solution to the complex array of problems holding back Hawai'i's public schools.

The plan offered by House Democrats is intended to compete with Gov. Linda Lingle's proposal to break up the statewide Board of Education into seven local boards that would have full authority over schools in their areas.

Less than a year ago, the House voted overwhelming for a constitutional amendment to create the seven local school boards, but Democrats oppose the idea now that a new Republican governor wants it. House leaders have yet to convincingly explain their abrupt reversal of position. Nothing has changed since last year except the politics.

The new House plan represents little change because it simply ratifies a reorganization already under way in the Department of Education. The DOE hatched the shuffle to head off a full breakup that would stretch the bureaucracy out of its comfort zone.

The statewide Board of Education maintains its power under the House plan, since the 15 local councils would be appointed and controlled by the school board and would have limited independent power.

The Legislature would keep its power over the purse strings in our public schools, and unions representing teachers and support staff retain their political clout and bargaining power under a statewide system.

The House plan makes all of the political entities happy, but does little to enhance learning in our schools because it fails to address many of the core problems retarding public education in Hawai'i.

The Lingle plan also lacks details on key issues, making it vitally important that all parties stop playing politics on education and start cooperating on the real solutions we all know are needed.

We won't get our schools on track until we give some authority — whether it be a statewide board or local boards — a dedicated source of dependable financing and full control of educational policy, budgeting and labor relations.

Only then can we plan for improvement in our schools and have the stability to implement plans without endless political interference from all directions.

Only then will school officials be freed from the demoralizing burden of constantly having to re-fight old budget battles as state revenues change from year to year.

Only then can we make orderly plans to address the shameful physical deterioration of our schools and shortage of basic learning materials such as textbooks, computers and lab equipment.

Only then can we resolve the persistent labor unrest that keeps attention focused on the desires of disgruntled teachers instead of the needs of students.

Only then can we restore discipline in our schools and achieve the worthy goal enunciated by former Gov. Ben Cayetano of devoting our best resources to "creating the chemistry in the classroom which leads to effective learning."

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