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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 21, 2010

Schools chief should have some autonomy

Gov. Linda Lingle wants the authority to pick the superintendent of schools, making that appointee a member of the administration's Cabinet, just like any other department head.

That notion, which would take a constitutional amendment to realize, has the seductive promise of bringing at least some measure of clarity to the management of a public school system riven by discord among the administration, the Board of Education and the Legislature.

And bringing the head of public schools into the inner sanctum of state administration considering that education consumes the largest portion of the state budget is a good idea. It would give public schools a seat at the table where spending priorities are hashed out.

But there's a nagging flaw that can't be overlooked.

A superintendent of schools who is appointed by and answerable to the governor would be far less independent. And when the governor's term ends, the superintendent likely would be swept out with the rest of the Cabinet, to be replaced by someone the next administration favors. That's no way to enable continuity for school reform. If the current Department of Education officials launch a program of systemic changes as they hope to do with the aid of federally funded programs like Race to the Top it all could be upended by the election cycle and short-term political priorities.

The governor's idea is just one element on a weighty agenda facing the state Legislature, which opened yesterday. She's proposing that a constitutional amendment be put on the ballot to change the superintendent's job to a Cabinet-level post appointed by the governor. Legislative leadership has pledged to give the proposal a hearing, which it deserves.

But legislators must ensure that any change enacted provides political insulation for the chief of public schools. As important as it is to draw the superintendent into the loop of state governance, it's also important that the head of Hawai'i's schools can confidently put the priorities of students ahead of political concerns and the governor's wishes.

Lingle has reason to be frustrated with the current educational system because the superintendent now is hired by and accountable to an elected school board, with members who are rarely on the same page regarding policy or fiscal discipline.

However, there should be a way to include the chief at the Cabinet table without subjecting such a key leader to political pressure. Hawai'i's school students, who have long waited for reform, deserve no less.