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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

State school 'takeover' shouldn't be privatized

At first glance, it is rather dismal news that the state will "take over" or restructure some 24 public schools for failing to make adequate progress under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The obvious inference is that these schools cannot handle their educational tasks on their own and need outside help.

However, it is crucial to remember that this does not necessarily mean "failure" on the part of the schools. It may just as reasonably signal that the schools lack the human or physical resources to handle the task at hand.

Restructuring, reconstituting or, in layman's terms, a "takeover" may simply mean that the system brings greater resources to bear on the needs of these schools.

Still, while Hawai'i is moving steadily toward a much stronger "school centric" system in which individual school communities decide their own fate, this moves in the opposite direction.

This restructuring must go beyond just shuffling administrative responsibilities.

Improving instruction must be the central goal. This won't be cheap or easy. The school system already is struggling to meet its current obligations and has a shortage of teachers.

While more federal support would be welcomed, the reality is that local lawmakers will have to come up with most of the money needed to make these big changes.

And even if the restructuring results in more centralized decision-making, it still should be possible to honor the philosophy of school-centered administration. The restructuring and reallocation of resources should be in the context of what each individual school and school community recognizes as its greatest need.

Encouragingly, Superintendent Pat Hamamoto has said she knows it won't work to impose "off the shelf" solutions on individual schools.

Some schools are battling to educate a student body that has a large number of transient, even homeless, students; others are working with heavy populations of students for whom English is a second language.

Clearly, one-size-fits-all "restructuring" will not work.

One area where the state must move very carefully is in making use of private education agencies to help in the transformation of these schools.

It is entirely appropriate to bring in fresh outside expertise, materials or educational approaches. It is not appropriate to throw the running of these schools to private corporations.

Privatization of public schools on the Mainland has has some successes, but there have been as many, if not more, experiences where the change to private management made little difference or made problems worse.

While the underlying goals of No Child Left Behind are admirable and worthwhile, this process should not be used to quietly but steadily privatize this important public function.

The goal, always, should be to elevate and improve our public schools, not abandon them.