Lingle wants DOE part of Cabinet
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Gov. Linda Lingle, claiming there is a lack of accountability on public education, will propose a constitutional amendment next session to make the state Department of Education a Cabinet-level department under the governor’s control. Meanwhile, state House and Senate leaders said a special session is unlikely to deal with the budget deficit, some lawmakers are organizing.
State Sen. Will Espero, D-20th (`Ewa Beach, Waipahu), has collected 13 signatures from senators who want to return in special session to consider using the hurricane relief fund to restore classroom instruction.
“What you have now is a system where no one can be held accountable completely because of the way it’s structured,” Lingle told reporters today as parents and their children gathered at the state Capitol for a rally to protest teacher furloughs.
Lingle said the furor over the decision by the DOE and the Hawaii State Teachers Association to schedule furloughs for teachers on classroom instruction days shows the need for accountability. The department and the teachers’ union have suggested that Lingle’s budget restrictions forced the furloughs, which were part of a new two-year contract for teachers, while the governor said the department and the union had the discretion over whether to take pay cuts or furloughs and over when to set the furlough days.
In a rare admission, Lingle said she should have taken a stronger stand once she learned that furloughs would take time away from classroom instruction.
“I rarely second-guess myself but on this one I certainly did,” the governor said. “Looking back on it now, I assumed that they would do what was in the best interest of the students, and I don’t think they did. I don’t think their decision was in the best interest of the students.
“I think it was in the best interest of getting the contract resolved, and we were all focussed on that, myself included. But looking back I think it would have been better to stand up and say, `Well, we just can’t settle it this way.’”
Lingle said she would ask state lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment before voters next year to make the DOE a Cabinet-level department where the governor would have the authority to hire and fire the state schools superintendent.
The DOE, the state’s largest department, is funded and influenced by the governor and the state Legislature but governed by the elected state Board of Education. Under Article X of the state constitution, the school board has the power to hire and fire the state schools superintendent and set statewide educational policy.
Lingle, a Republican who has fought with majority Democrats over education reform, said she hopes Democrats will support her proposal since it will not apply to her. Lingle will complete her second four-year term next year, so the authority would be given to the next governor.
Lingle cited a 1992 report by a task force on educational governance that described the existing school board structure as an anomaly because it combined both legislative and executive branch functions. The report found that the combination of functions led to micromanaging by the school board, but others have said it also produces a lack of accountability, since the school board often complains about inadequate funding and support by the governor and lawmakers.
U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, who is running for governor next year, said he has long believed the DOE should be a Cabinet-level department.
“The problem right now, the challenge, is that nobody is actually accountable in the end,” the congressman said. “The governor can point to the Legislature and the Board of Education, and it’s circular.
“The governor should appoint the superintendent of education. And the superintendent of education should be in the governor’s Cabinet. The governor and the Legislature should take direct responsibility for education, higher and lower, in the state.”
Abercrombie, like Lingle, said the role of the state school board could be determined during debate over the idea. One recommendation, made by the 1992 task force and others, including former governor Ben Cayetano, is for an appointed school board.
State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), the chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee, said he would consider the governor’s idea next session. But he said the governor should immediately make more of an effort to include state schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto in her Cabinet meetings to demonstrate how such an idea might work.
“Starting immediately, she should invite them to her Cabinet meetings and, ideally, the chemistry would improve,” said Sakamoto, who is running for lieutenant governor next year.
Karen Knudsen, a member of the school board, said she wished the governor and lawmakers would put questions of educational governance aside and focus on how to restore classroom instruction days lost to furloughs.
“I think at this time it would be more constructive to focus on the issue at hand, which is the state budget, the furlough days, and how we can make this better and work with what we have,” she said. “The bigger issue of education governance is always an important topic to discuss, but at this point I think it takes away from the immediacy of what we’re dealing with now.”