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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 9, 2010

A lofty mission to fix schools turns ugly

By Lee Cataluna

When Gov. Linda Lingle took office, she talked about bringing change to the infamously bureaucratic, chronically underachieving public schools. In those early days, she sounded hopeful, noble, even valiant.

But in time, her lofty mission soured into a vendetta, and the goal seems no longer to reform anything on behalf of the students, but to take a swing at the schools' power structure that has vexed her at every turn.

Now that her time in office is running down with little in her win column, that "change the public schools" line on her to-do list is circled in red, underlined and covered with stars and flaming arrows.

Tying a furlough-fix to a constitutional amendment that would give the next governor the power to pick the superintendent of schools is off-point and unproductive.

It has no place in contract negotiations with teachers. It is another sign of what a grudge match this has become for Lingle. Regarding the sit-in at the state Capitol, she could have taken a page from former University of Hawai'i President David McClain: come out of her office, talk to the students and their parents, acknowledge their concerns and agree to disagree.

On the other hand, the Hawaii State Teachers Association hasn't exactly moved heaven and earth to get the kids back in class. They held tight to those planning days. Calling for a vote on an offer they know the governor won't agree with doesn't do anything.

So graduation and summer vacation are weeks away with no agreement to end furlough Fridays in sight. Perhaps it is too much to expect the parties who agreed to furlough Fridays to undo the deal. They thought it was fine until parents started yelling and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tsk-tsked.

The heroes that have emerged are those who have dealt with those classless Fridays on their own terms: the parents who have had to find alternative learning opportunities or child care; the teachers who have carefully planned extra homework or activities; the nonprofits that quickly came up with affordable educational programs for those otherwise idle days.

Hawai'i public schools still need fixing, from the buildings on campus to the inflexible bureaucracy and the test-obsessed No Child Left Behind mandate.

Arguing over whether groundskeepers are essential staff doesn't change that. Voting on whether the next governor gets to pick the schools superintendent doesn't change that.

All the focus on furlough Fridays has hurt the lofty mission of making schools better.