Act 51: Can It Save The Public Schools?
The legislature passed a bill “reinventing” the public schools. Now some of the town’s most powerful business executives are trying to make it work.
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Last year, the superintendent admitted that Hawaii’s public schools had become “obsolete,” that the state Department of Education needed change. The governor introduced an education reform package. The Hawaii Business Roundtable, an organization of 50 CEOs from around the state, issued a position paper and pledged $500,000 in support. The Legislature passed its own, controversial schools reform bill, Act 51. To make Act 51 a reality, the DOE looked outside the system. A number of major business leaders rolled up their sleeves and volunteered hundreds of hours in the work of reorganization. Recently, HONOLULU sat down to talk to a group of these leaders.
HONOLULU: You’ve put in a lot of work into public education. We’d like to go around the table and ask each of you one or two specific results you hope to see in the next couple of years.
Horner: Public education is extremely important, because we’re dealing with the true assets of Hawaii—our kids. Business should be involved, because the product of education greatly influences the success of businesses today and in the future.
We’re looking to shine a bright light on the problem. Because clearly there’s a problem. The problem stems from leadership, it stems from accountability, from organizational structure, around a whole host of fundamental structural issues. I don’t think there’s a problem with people. I don’t think there’s a problem with lack of effort. There is certainly not a problem with our children. But there are definitely problems with infrastructure and process and I could go on for another hour and a half.
The bottom line: The first thing I’d like to see is for all the stakeholders to get together, as they have, and force themselves to talk about the problems. Act 51 is the first step toward that.
D’Olier : The first thing I’d like to see is more transparency—financial transparency and student performance transparency. I’d also like to see better measurement. We have haphazard measurement right now, but ultimately we’ll need a measurement system where we’ve got K-12 data on all kids, no matter what school they’re in. Until we have the right data, which is going to require the right systems, we’re not going to know where we are.
Coppa: A number of us in this room have been working for many years on sustaining a strong economy. One of the things that always came up was: Do we have the work force? It all comes back to education. When I envision the future, that’s what I want to come out of all this: that when we graduate students from high school, whether they go to a two-year college or four-year, they’re capable of doing the business that we can do here in Hawaii.
Toledo: When you ask what we’d like to see in two years, that makes me nervous. I’ve been involved in this issue for about five years, with little progress. In two years you’re not going to see substantial change, that’s not realistic. But 10 or 20 years down the road, if we don’t start putting a lot of political will and community focus to this, we’ll be in the same spot we are today. Act 51 in this past Legislature brought a lot of good focus. Now it’s just a matter of executing and implementing.
Carey: The public schools have a $1.7, or $1.9, billion budget, depending on how you count it, and somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 employees in some stage of full-time or part-time employment. Yet you have administrative processes and systems that were designed 25 or 30 years ago. The administrative processes and systems are constraining the educational product in a major way.
What I would like to see is a real evolution to a more productive and effective administration delivery of the business behind the classroom. So that the classroom has the tools, the resources and the facilities it needs to bring the educational level up.
Moore: As Noni said, this is a long-term process. It’s going to be 10 years before we see real improvement. I’m concerned that this next year, it’s going to look even worse, because the percentage of students that must be proficient in math and reading on the tests goes up. We’re going to have more schools not meeting their annual progress goals, because the hurdles are higher. Things are not going to be looking good come next August or September, when we get this year’s test scores. It’s a long-term project.
HONOLULU: I recently got a chance to ask Gov. Linda Lingle about Act 51. Her reply was that the Legislature and the DOE didn’t want true reform. From your experience, does the DOE really want to be reinvented?
Coppa: I take exception to that. The people around this table are business people who work every day and have things to do. To commit the time and effort to make this reform work, whether it’s two years or five years or 10 years, the fact is, we’re not in this because we feel it’s a fake reform. We’re in the trenches trying to produce a result.
With Act 51, the Legislature opened a door for us, invited the business community to work with the DOE. I take exception to the statement that this is a cover of some kind. This is real.
Toledo: In my interaction with the personnel at the DOE, I see that they do want to change, that they have a passion to reinvent education. But it’s like trying to move this whole building. It’s going to take a while.
D’Olier : I think it’s a complicated question, because the DOE comprises somewhere between 17,000 and 24,000 people. I don’t think you can say “the DOE wants.” My experience has shown me that there are way more good people embedded in the system than I ever thought. I have met people who want to see measurable increases in student achievement in their schools. I see a system bound up in processes that needs to be unbound. What’s happened is that we’ve thrown the door open and we’ve started. My belief is that the superintendent wants true change.
Reform is the wrong word to me. “Change” or “redesign” would be a more neutral word.
Coppa: The question whether the DOE wants “reform” implies that there is a people problem. I’d suggest we don’t have a people problem, but a process problem. Either way, we have a huge opportunity, and it’s going to take all the stakeholders getting together, including the administration and the unions.