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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 1, 2006

Can our ailing public schools be fixed?

 •  The burning questions of 2006

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

The Reinventing Education Act requires, among other things, performance-based contracts for public school principals.

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For three decades, Hawai'i's public schools have been among the worst in the country. Military families have dreaded assignment to the Islands, and affluent local families have fled to pricey private schools. Meanwhile, a backlog of repairs and maintenance stands at more than half a billion dollars, putting children in less-than-ideal learning environments.

Test scores match the buildings largely poor and below standard. Last year Hawai'i's graduating seniors ranked 45th among the states.

Two years ago, Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto asked a joint session of the Legislature to give her the tools and the space to make a difference and then hold her accountable.

Lawmakers responded with the Reinventing Education Act, which mandated a common school calendar, performance-based contracts that will hold principals accountable for student achievement, a new way of getting money to the schools based on individual student need, and other tools.

All will be in place with the start of the new school year, though some wrinkles need to be resolved.

There have been bright spots in the meantime, not the least of which was a number of poorly performing schools making strides in the latest testing, and huge leaps from their starting points.

But the challenges remain.

The state will continue to struggle with an influx of immigrant children with language and education gaps, along with a large percentage of disadvantaged children and special- needs students. Red tape still stands between more than 30,000 disadvantaged under-performing children and the free tutoring for which they are eligible. Thousands of repairs at schools statewide wait to be addressed, some years after they were requested.

And there's so very far to go to meet ever-increasing federal standards.

The state's new tools have set the stage for change. The coming year will be one to solidify and see how well the tools are working.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.