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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 27, 2008

ConCon could jeopardize Hawaii school system, opponents say

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer

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Education is likely to be on the top of the agenda if the state were to convene a Constitutional Convention, but opponents warn that potential changes such as local school boards or dismantling of the state Department of Education could have adverse consequences on student achievement and equal access to education.

Fears of how a Constitutional Convention could alter the state's education system are so high that even the national teachers union is pouring money into local efforts to combat the ballot question.

"By having a single system, children from across the state from Ni'ihau to Ka'u have the same right to the same education," said Roger Takabayashi, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

"That could be in jeopardy because part of the motivation for a ConCon is this push for local school boards," Takabayashi said.

But supporters of a ConCon say that the opposition is attempting to instill fear in the electorate, especially when it comes to the issue of education.

Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona said the teachers union is trying to scare people into thinking the ConCon is an effort to dismantle the public school system.

"On the Neighbor Islands, this is a very important issue for them. They know the ConCon can address issues such as local control, getting money to the schools, having their issues dealt with a lot quicker," Aiona said.

OPPOSITION SUPPORT

The state constitution authorizes the lieutenant governor to place the question of a Constitutional Convention on the ballot if a decade passes without the Legislature doing so. Voters rejected a Constitutional Convention in 1998. The state's last Constitutional Convention was in 1978.

The National Education Association, the national teacher's association, has contributed $350,000 to the Hawaii Alliance, a local campaign dedicated to opposing the ballot initiative to convene an elected assembly to review the state's governing document.

The NEA has also contributed some $150,000 to the HSTA so the union can rally opposition to the ConCon within its own ranks, Takabayashi said. The money is coming out of the union's ballot initiative fund to fight similar "attacks on public education" across the country, he said.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett, a supporter of the ConCon, said it's inappropriate to presuppose what an elected assembly might decide in terms of the state's education system.

"There are many possibilities," Bennett said. "On the DOE level, one question is whether a statewide system is the best way of governing public education."

Bennett said options such as local school boards are likely to be considered. He also said that delegates could consider whether the state Department of Education should be a Cabinet-level department, which answers directly to the governor, rather than its own agency.

"Of course, the ConCon could look at (the DOE) and say that changes aren't necessary. But it's hard to see that happening," he said.

LOCAL SCHOOL BOARDS

Much of the opposition to the Constitutional Convention is centered around the supposed dangers of local school boards.

Takabayashi said that the creation of local school boards will only serve to establish a system of "haves and have nots."

"Right now we have a very equitable system. There's a lack of resources, but it's equitable," Takabayashi said.

Denise Matsumoto, Honolulu member of the state Board of Education, said the school system is set up around the fact that there is only one main source of funding the state.

"When you look at local school boards on the Mainland, they can levy taxes, they put up bonds for people to vote on," she said.

Because of that, Matsumoto said that type of system creates an environment where affluent areas do well while poorer areas do not.

Matsumoto said that recently, there have been several changes to the school system that has given communities local control of their schools. For instance, Act 51 the state's Reinventing Education Act created School Community Councils, which allow community members to decide on their school's financial and academic plans.

Rep. Roy Takumi (D-Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades), the House Education Committee chairman, said that there are other ways to effect change within the school system without holding a ConCon.

"I'm not convinced that changing the governance of the school system leads to better achievement," Takumi said. "The research is nil. If that were the case, Mississippi would have great schools they have local school boards."

Takumi said he's opposed to the ConCon because he believes that changes in education can be made through the legislative process. The Legislature can also put constitutional amendments before the voters, he said.

"If the goal is higher student achievement, graduates with civic mindedness, safe schools, committed teachers ... all of those issues are nonconstitutional issues," Takumi said.

PUSH FOR FLEXIBILITY

But supporters such as Republican Majority Leader Lynn Finnegan say that Hawai'i's single school board is at the heart of the problem.

"Whenever we start talking about any type of flexibility of authority, local control, we can't do it because the constitution says we can only have one board," Finnegan said.

Finnegan said she doesn't believe that Act 51 accomplished its goal of giving schools control of their own money through the so-called weighted student formula. She said schools are still bound by "one-size fits all" policies of a single school board.

"There are other things you can do in law-making, but when you get to the root of that problem, it's the school board," she said.

The previous Constitutional Convention in Hawai'i was held 30 years ago, and cost about $2 million. The Legislative Reference Bureau has estimated a new convention could cost up to $41.7 million. A task force set up by Aiona estimated it would cost from $2 million to $11 million.

In times of budget cuts, opponents say that money would be better spent on education.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano, in an e-mail, said issues such as decentralization of the school system can be done legislatively.

"I see no big issue which requires calling for a ConCon and spending $11-plus million for 100 or so delegates with little or no legislative experience to meet for two months and propose changes. If people are dissatisfied with the Legislature, they should vote them out of office," he said.

Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.