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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teachers' contract leaves keiki behind


By David Shapiro

Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto, who is more than a month into the school year without a budget, had little choice but to hammer out a labor deal with the teachers' union that brings some certainty to the Department of Education's planning.

But her explanation was puzzling on why she favored a furlough plan that closes schools 17 days a year instead of a straight pay cut that wouldn't have reduced instruction.

Hamamoto said furloughs are better for teachers because the 7.9 percent salary loss is temporary and doesn't reduce base pay, while pay cuts that would have averted school closings are more permanent and "hard to come back from" in future negotiations.

So here's the question: If the union's primary concern is what's best for teachers and management's primary concern is what's best for teachers, who is looking out for what's best for students, their parents and the community at large?

It appears our keiki, the No. 1 stakeholders in the school system, weren't even represented at the bargaining table and that's the root reason our schools are forever near the bottom of national performance ratings.

Hawai'i public schools aren't run primarily for the benefit of the kids, but for the benefit of adults who feed off the school system and derive power from it.

The teachers' contract seems intended to maximize the hurt on students and their parents in order to bring pressure on the Legislature to raise taxes and give teachers their money back.

Not only were furloughs favored over a straight pay cut that would have minimized the impact on learning, but all 17 "Furlough Fridays" targeted instruction days while leaving untouched teacher preparation days when there are no classes.

As a result, a salary reduction of less than 8 percent translates to a nearly 9.5 percent loss in the 180 instruction days for students who are already lagging peers in most other states in reading, math and science.

How can we have so little conscience that we risk the life prospects of a generation of children for the sake of political leverage? Some in the DOE seem relieved to have a ready excuse for poor future showings in national achievement tests.

Teachers are mostly a dedicated group who are by no means overpaid. They are often pawns just like the students in the political jockeying between the governor, the Board of Education, the unions and the Legislature.

Nobody can take pleasure from seeing them have to take pay cuts, but teachers and other public workers are not a privileged class immune from the grim economic forces that workers in the private sector have been dealing with for more than a year.

There's no logical reason why pay cuts for teachers have to mean less education for students. Many private-sector workers have taken pay cuts in some cases well over 7.9 percent yet few of their companies suspended customer service two days a month.

Trying to force a tax increase to reverse pay cuts for public workers asks private-sector workers who have already suffered layoffs, pay cuts and loss of hours in their own jobs to sacrifice even more so government workers don't have to sacrifice at all.

The teachers' contract isn't a signal that we have to raise taxes to give teachers their money back. It's a sign that Hawai'i has hit rock bottom on public education, and it's time to nuke this hopelessly failing system and rebuild it piece by piece.

Who among our respected community leaders will have the courage to step up for our keiki and make it happen?