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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 27, 2006

Students, teachers both need relief in state classrooms

By Lance Holter

Debate has surfaced over the last few months on how to use Hawai'i's $570 million surplus. It's a no-brainer: We should spend it on improving education. Here's why:

Since the advent of the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act and Hawai'i's response, Act 51 (the Reinventing Education Act of 2004), it appears that never has morale among our teachers and school administrators been so low. The stress involved for overworked teachers and understaffed administrators to have their students reach "Average Yearly Progress" quotas has turned our educational system's mission to that of creating "good test takers" vs. students educated to develop critical thinking and useful real-life skills.

As an example, a fifth-grade student I know was able to correctly answer a complex algebra problem but still cannot read a ruler or tape measure. If we only create a generation of good test takers and focus on taking tests, how will we nurture individuals to develop social, cultural and emotional intelligence?

All around the state, I hear of schools in budget crisis where essential staff such as school librarians, special-needs teachers, assistant teachers, counselors and tutors are facing cutbacks and layoffs because of the unforeseen effects of the new weighted student formula.

One librarian told me, "Act 51 is causing havoc in our schools, and how sad this is for our children." She told me 15 schools in the state are considering dropping library positions. When this happened in California in the 1980s and '90s, reading scores dropped. What will be the consequences to Hawai'i?

Consistently, education professionals have recommended lower class-size ratios to teachers for improving education. Class size is a very important issue with kindergarten classes because you have very young students needing more attention, mixed with older students needing less. To alleviate the problem, the idea of junior kindergarten has been floating round for some time, but in order to do this, extra teachers need to be hired. Yet if because of budget restraints we are facing cutbacks in early-education providers, how do we therefore address the very basic principle of improving education if we can't afford to hire the teachers we need? Or because the morale of schools is so low that potential new teachers are being advised by their senior peers to follow some other career?

According to the National Education Association (2004-05), Hawai'i ranks 23rd in the nation in spending per pupil at $8,090 and 18th in average teacher salaries at $45,479 while at the same time being in the highest national rankings for expenses in cost of living and housing. According to the National Center of Education Statistics for 2003, Hawai'i ranked 46th in reading scores for grade 4 and 50th (last in the nation) for grade 8.

With Hawai'i facing the choice of giving out tax refunds or substantially funding schools, we must seize the opportunity that only comes along on the rarest of occasions and really make a difference.

I recently contacted Sen. Gary Hooser's office (vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee) and was informed three bills are currently making their way through the Legislature to correct the shortcomings of Act 51 and at the same time benefit funding for education:

  • Senate Bill 3102 would address the needs for more teachers and teacher-student ratios, as well as provide additional teaching staff for art, music, physical education, gifted and talented, technology, tutors, counselors, librarians and appropriate staffing.

  • Senate Bill 2179 would address the weighted student formula and make sure affected schools would not lose funding for teachers and staff.

  • Senate Bill 2860 would provide additional funding and resources for beginning junior kindergarten programs.

    Please contact your legislators today and insist they fund and support Hawai'i's schools and pass those bills, which would ensure, once and for all, that no child will be left behind.

    Lance Holter is chairman for the Makawao School Community Council and lives in Pai'a, Maui.