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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 8, 2009

DOE bureaucracy hinders efficient, successful schools

By David Shapiro

When schools superintendent Patricia Hamamoto threatened to close public schools a month early if Gov. Linda Lingle diverted $90 million in federal stimulus funds intended for education to balance the state budget, I jokingly suggested a solution:

Keep the schools open and shut down the Department of Education's central bureaucracy for a month and see if anybody misses it.

Raiding the federal stimulus money distorts its purpose, and it's an open question whether Lingle will or should be able to get away with it.

But the governor has a fair point that management as much as funding is the root cause of the persistent problems that keep our schools near the bottom of national performance rankings.

No matter how much more funding DOE receives, student achievement in reading and math never seems to significantly improve. Demands for money are seldom accompanied by measurable plans to parlay increased spending into better performance.

How much better might our schools perform if we had a much smaller and less powerful DOE and instead put the schools under the charge of crack principals who had real authority and real accountability?

The Catholic Church seems to run its extensive school system quite nicely without a big department of education.

As I said, my suggestion for a trial shutdown of the DOE was made jokingly, but it's only half-joking after I read the story about McKinley principal Ron Okamura's frustrations in trying to use drug-sniffing dogs on his campus.

He says a pilot program he implemented at three Maui schools in 2007 dropped campus drug incidents to zero.

But despite having outside donors willing to fund the program at McKinley, Okamura can't get approval because of limitations on searches and seizures in disciplinary rules known as Chapter 19.

Amendments to Chapter 19 to resolve the issue have been pending for a year and a half while the Board of Education debated student privacy rights. The amendments are up for a series of public hearings this month.

"There are certain procedures that have to be followed," said Deputy Superintendent Clayton Fujie.

What a waste of time and manpower. How many hours have how many people in the DOE spent working on this fringe issue that is so removed from the core problem of school performance?

What if procedures didn't have to be followed? What if a principal who wanted drug-sniffing dogs at his school could simply get the buy-in of his school community, check with the attorney general to make sure it's legal and just do it?

(It is quite legal; dogs routinely sniff passengers and luggage for drugs at Honolulu Airport. If there were a need to reinvent legal philosophy on drug sniffing, it would more appropriately be handled by the Legislature than the dithering Board of Education.)

If Okamura was free to reasonably secure McKinley from drugs without jumping through endless procedural hoops, principals at other schools could see how it worked and implement it or not based on the needs of their schools and the wishes of their school communities.

How much simpler could such basic policymaking get? How many other issues could be sensibly resolved at the school level without involvement of the central DOE?

This was a major goal of Act 51, the so-called "reinventing education" law passed by the 2004 Legislature, but it has gone mostly unrealized in the face of bureaucratic inertia at the DOE.

Until the central administration is trimmed, decision-making becomes more efficient and more authority is transferred to the schools as promised, Lingle is absolutely right that the DOE budget deserves microscopic scrutiny.

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