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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Governance at all levels has failed schools

By David Shapiro

If we had a "three strikes" law in public education, our school leaders would be making the long walk back to the dugout in disgrace after whiffing at all key promises of Act 51, the 2004 law that was supposed to "reinvent" education in Hawai'i.

Strike one was when the Board of Education all but discarded weighted student spending, a central element of Act 51 intended to put money for the schools where it is needed most.

Strike two is the plodding pace at which the Department of Education has implemented school/ community councils to help direct budgeting and hiring at public schools. Officials say it's taking longer than expected to train council members to participate effectively.

And strike three was a report by the legislative auditor last week that cast doubt on the viability of perhaps the most important mandate of Act 51 empowering principals rather than central bureaucrats to decide how most money at the schools is spent.

The audit of Kailua High found that sound financial management was absent, raising questions about whether it is feasible to funnel more responsibility to the schools as Act 51 envisioned.

"Schools are being asked to handle so much," said Board of Education member Karen Knudsen. "There's too much we're sending down to the school level without proper supports in place."

Keep in mind that Act 51, passed by the Legislature to counter Gov. Linda Lingle's call to break up our cumbersome statewide school system, had the unanimous support of "stakeholders" who feed off the status quo the school board, the DOE bureaucracy and the unions representing teachers, principals and other school employees.

As soon as the political pressure was off, the speed at which they reneged on their promises of reform set a new record, even for this bunch.

And nobody seems interested in cranking the pressure back up as our schools continue to struggle with disappointing student progress in reading and math.

Lingle is merrily campaigning for re-election on all the money she's released for education some of it passed by the Legislature over her objections and has turned mum on restructuring our schools.

Her Democratic opponent, Randall Iwase, bashes Lingle for failing to follow through on school reform, but has no fresh ideas of his own and neglects to mention that "reforms" put forth by his fellow Democrats in Act 51 proved to be a sham.

Members of the Board of Education have effectively abandoned Act 51, and Democratic legislators have shown little interest in revisiting the law despite its obvious failure.

As the school system collapses under its own weight, the answer of those in charge never changes: Give more money to the same people so they can continue doing the same things and fail even more spectacularly.

Are you concerned that two-thirds of our schools can't get our kids reading and doing math up to minimum standards despite having them in their care for seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year?

Shhh, let's not talk about that, apologists say; dwelling on failure only hurts the kids' morale. Imagine how low their morale sinks when they can't get the jobs they want because of their lagging reading and math skills.

Defenders of the status quo still argue that the problem is not school governance, but getting the right resources to the classrooms.

They ignore that competent governance is what it takes to get resources to the classrooms.

We'll never fix this broken system that is failing our children until we take it apart and put it back together with fewer fingers in the pie and more accountability at every level.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.