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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Education reform? Forget it

By David Shapiro

To see why they've lost their 40-year grip on absolute political power in Hawai'i, local Democrats need only look at House Speaker Calvin Say's inept response to Gov. Linda Lingle's push for education reform in the next Legislature.

After Lingle appointed a 22-member citizens panel to recommend changes in school governance, Say complained she's moving "too quick" as she approaches a legislative session that will take her to the halfway point of her term.

"It's only been not even a year she's been in public office, and now she wants to delve into public educational policy reforms?" Say sniffed.

Decentralizing the statewide school system was a key issue in the Republican Lingle's convincing victory ending a 40-year line of Democratic governors. Exactly how long would Say have Lingle twiddle her thumbs before keeping her promises to voters?

Lingle was elected because voters saw a pressing need to improve our schools and address other crippling state problems. Democrats still don't get it that they were rejected for the very lack of urgency they continue to display. Whether Lingle is right or wrong in proposing to break the statewide school system into seven local boards, Say and the House Democrats have zero credibility in criticizing her.

Two sessions ago, they passed nearly the identical decentralization plan Lingle proposes, only to see it die in the Senate. The only difference between then and now is the politics — lawmakers now have a Republican governor who wants the reforms.

Say argues it's unfair to fault the centralized school system his own members wanted to dismantle such a short time ago. Essentially, he blames students for their own failure to learn.

"I've always said our public school system is doing a fantastic job with the composition of students that we have," he said, claiming that bright students who could raise Hawai'i's woeful standardized test scores "apply to private schools."

Administration of public schools clearly has improved under Superintendent Pat Hamamoto, but let's be realistic about where we stand.

Hawai'i's goal this year for student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act is humbling in its modesty — 10 percent proficiency in math and 30 percent proficiency in reading — and 64 percent of our public schools failed to meet even that.

It hardly adds up to the "fantastic job" claimed by Say.

His suggestion that the problem rests with an overload of students from poor families and those who speak limited English is especially insulting. Schools like Kuhio Elementary have proved they can raise the standardized test scores of students of exactly this mix with the right learning environment.

The problem isn't students' inability to learn; it's the system's failure to teach them.

Finally, Say whined that Lingle didn't "get all the stakeholders together, rather than having some outsiders come in and say, 'This is how to do it.' "

To Say and the Democrats, the "stakeholders" are those who derive power from Hawai'i's floundering school system — lawmakers, Board of Education members, administrators and unions representing school employees.

Getting them together means cutting a political deal that lets everybody retain their power while giving the false appearance of school reform.

That's what the House tried to do last session with a "reform" package that did little more than codify changes already made by the DOE.

We'll never get our schools fixed until lawmakers understand that the real stakeholders in public education are the students whose futures are at stake and the community that depends on top-notch schools to support a thriving culture and economy.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.