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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 23, 2003

Aloha, Mr. President: We ask your attention

Aloha, President Bush, and welcome to Hawai'i.

We're sorry your stop here will be so brief. There is much to learn here and much to do.

But during your brief visit here, we hope you will listen carefully to those you meet, including Gov. Linda Lingle, local Republican leaders and even a group of Pacific Island leaders fortuitously here for a summit meeting at the East-West Center.

Surely your head is still swimming from your whirlwind tour of Asia. But if you would, we ask you to focus briefly on several issues that are of intense interest to your constituents here in the Islands.

Akaka bill critical

During your chat with Gov. Lingle, we ask you to pay particular attention to the issue of Hawaiian self-determination and the impact of the so-called Akaka Hawaiian recognition bill now before Congress. This legislation is critical to a vast range of social, economic and health programs aimed at Hawaiians.

In fact, it's not too much to say that it is important for the overall social health of all here in the Islands.

A simple signal from you that you understand the issue and the importance of the bill would do wonders.

In your meeting with the Pacific Island leaders, we ask you to listen carefully to their concerns about terrorism in their isolated and vulnerable nations. In Asia, you asked allies and friends for greater help in the war against terrorism. And if we are truly engaged in a worldwide war against terrorism, these Islands must be enlisted to help as well. Can the United States offer greater assistance?

Education comes first

But the first, and by far the most important, issue before us today is education.

Hawai'i, as you may know, is unique in having the nation's only single statewide school system. There are efforts under way to change that, by breaking the single district into smaller regional districts. Gov. Lingle is a leader in that effort.

People of good will can differ on this issue, but for the moment, we are a single system. This creates particular challenges as we struggle to come to grips with your No Child Left Behind educational initiative.

Every person in Hawai'i who cares about education stands with you on the basic principle of No Child: that every child has a right to a first-class education.

Our problems are in the implementation. What sounded good on paper back in Washington poses monumental difficulties for educators out here on the ground.

The first problem, clearly, is money. The mandates and requirements of No Child, ranging from free choice of transfers for students in "failing" schools through after-school tutoring, professional training for school aides and school reorganization, cost money. Big money.

And as you know, federal support for these mandates is far from sufficient. It would be one thing if Hawai'i — like most states — had the cash to make up the difference. But we do not.

School administrators are forced into bad choices: take money from existing programs to meet the dictates of No Child, or fall short on the federal law and risk the sanctions that come with it.

Some jurisdictions have become so frustrated that they are talking about dropping out of No Child, even if that means the loss of all federal support for local education. We don't want that, and we're convinced you don't, either.

Standards must remain high

Another choice would be to lower standards so that more schools could easily meet them. Hawai'i has stood firm against this option, and we're sure you would agree. Only high standards, vigorously pursued, will work.

It is time to build flexibility into No Child as well as beef up the amount of federal money that flows into school districts as they attempt to meet the requirements of the law.

It will take time to get our schools to the point where every child in every classroom in every school is making adequate yearly progress toward goals. Short-term, quick-trigger deadlines suggest the real goal is to move schools as quickly as possible into a "failing" situation where alternatives such as vouchers, school choice and private schools become the only realistic option.

That translates into a form of abandonment, surely the direct opposite of the philosophy that lies at the heart of No Child Left Behind.

From the windows of Air Force One, these Islands may appear to be insignificant specks on a vast Pacific sea. But from the ground, even over a brief 12-hour stay, they become real — populated by real people facing real challenges and real difficulties.

So aloha, Mr. President, and listen well.