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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 8, 2010

Legislators should heed ex-governors on schools

By David Shapiro

Three former Democratic governors have issued a welcome call to turn outrage over "furlough Fridays" into a positive commitment to finally mend our failing public schools and put "Hawai'i's Children First."

Now we'll see if public officials who hold the keys to reform have more respect for their kupuna than they've shown for the keiki they locked out of classrooms two Fridays a month.

George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano offered a three-point fix for the schools that includes replacing the dysfunctional elected Board of Education with one appointed by the governor, giving principals greater authority and mandating more class days.

They say the discussion ultimately must include streamlining the education bureaucracy, pay for performance in the school system, more stringent accountability and better support for charter schools.

The governors powerfully spelled out the failure of our schools bottom-skimming national test scores, the fewest class days in the country, military families avoiding Hawai'i assignments because of the poor schools, students unprepared for college or good jobs.

They also shot down the usual excuses about local students handicapped by poverty, poor language skills and special-education needs, noting that we're near the national average in those areas and schools elsewhere with similar challenges are doing better than we are.

Hawai'i's per-student funding is 13th-highest among the states, with an annual expenditure of about $16,000 per student that exceeds the annual tuition at most Hawai'i private schools.

Ariyoshi, Waihee and Cayetano made a strong case for change, but the test will be whether they're willing to put in the elbow grease or have the clout to persuade Democratic officeholders to make it happen.

Democratic legislators of this generation are more respectful of their campaign donors than their elders, and the teachers union, which has led the opposition to restructuring the school system, was the third-leading donor to legislative campaigns in the last election.

"Make no mistake, powerful interests will fight to protect the status quo," the governors acknowledged. "Virtually every governor over the past 50 years has tried in one way or another to decentralize or reform the DOE. Each effort has had broad support from the public, but each failed because the system fought back against effective reform."

Defenders of the status quo are already voicing the familiar refrain that the problem isn't governance, but resources in the classroom.

What the former chief executives understand and they don't is that good governance is exactly the way resources get to the classroom.