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Our Schools: Has Anything Changed?

In May 2001, we published "The Death of Public School," taking the state Department of Education to task for failing to do its job. It's been five years—has public education gotten any better?


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With a budget this year of $2.1 billion—up from $1.3 billion in 2001—the DOE is the largest department in Hawaii state government, consuming about half of the state's entire operating budget. The department also gets untold hundreds of millions more that are part of the budgets of several other state departments. This year alone, the state Legislature approved $657 million for repair and maintenance projects and, as of this writing, was on its way to approving a supplementary $351 million for the DOE.

But while legislators are forking over more money today than they did five years ago, taxpayers aren't seeing the payoff. One thing that hasn't changed much about our government-run school system is its remarkable ability to resist change.

>> At Jarrett Middle School, more than 60 percent of students come from low-income families, andabout 20 percent have limited English skills. But that didn't keep the school from making "annual yearly progress" this year under No Child Left Behind—the only restructuring middle school to do so. Under the leadership of Gerald Teramae (pictured), who took over as principal less than two years ago, Jarrett launched a free, after-school tutoring program (attracting about up to half of the school's 200 students each day) and held public meetings at the nearby Palolo Valley Homes public housing complex, where many students live, to encourage parental involvement. photo: Karin Kovalsky

The DOE employs 23,790 people—principals, teachers, support staff, administrators and so on. But it's impossible to blame any of them for the failure of our schools, because none of them is really in charge, as we pointed out in 2001. Not even our superintendent. For example, in 2004, superintendent of schools Pat Hamamoto told lawmakers to hold her accountable and to expect results. "But first," she told them, "you must give me the tools and the space to do the job."

Two years later, Hamamoto still can't hire or fire her own staff as she asked. She still needs approval from the Board of Education to name her complex area (a high school and its feeder schools) superintendents.

This is just one example of how entrenched the bureaucracy is within our school system. Any attempt to shift decision-making power from the DOE and the elected officials who fund it has met supreme resistance, if not outright hostility.

As we pointed out in 2001, no other state in the nation runs public education at the state level, with a single statewide district run by a single Board of Education. When Gov. Linda Lingle took office in 2002, her biggest education proposal was to split up Hawaii's monolithic school district into seven smaller districts, giving each its own board. The Democratic-controlled Legislature quickly rebuffed the idea, even though many of them had favored decentralization under previous governor Ben Cayetano's Democratic administration.

In "The Death of Public School," we noted that the DOE couldn't account for its own spending. It still can't, drawing criticism from Hawaii's state auditor in report after report. Lingle herself points out that, from 1973 to 2003, the number of students has stayed the same, with about 180,000 enrolled in DOE schools each year. But over that same period, the department's operating expenses (even adjusted for inflation) shot up by 175 percent and its staff nearly doubled. Those extra dollars haven't translated into higher student achievement.

"I don't believe you can find another entity—a business, a nonprofit—that has these kinds of resources," Lingle says. "No one can make the case that schools aren't getting enough money. It's because the money is not reaching down to the school level. They just keep getting more and more, and nothing has changed."

What's worse, our Democratic lawmakers aren't holding the DOE accountable. When Lingle suggested a bipartisan commission to analyze the DOE's finances and help establish a "comprehensive, detailed and understandable" accounting system, the BOE rejected the idea.

"[The DOE] can just keep going to the Legislature, and, revenues are up, they can get more money," Lingle says. "Corporations can't do that. You can only price your product so high before people stop buying it. What choice do people have who can't afford to send their child to private school? They're just stuck."

Feds to the Rescue?

There are small signs of improvement in our schools. On the Hawaii State Assessment, the DOE test we've used to compile math and reading proficiency scores in our "Grading the Public Schools" chart, students noticeably improved in those subjects. About 21.1 percent of DOE students demonstrated proficiency in math, up two percentage points from 2004; 43.7 percent were proficient in reading, compared with 41.1 percent two years ago.

But the DOE can't take all the credit for even this slight raise in student test scores. After all, the schools didn't just get better on their own. They were forced to by the federal government.

In the fall of 2001, the Bush administration created the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requiring that all of the nation's students be proficient in core academic subjects by 2014. States that don't meet those demands will face sanctions from Washington.

Since the 1960s, the federal government has given money to high-poverty, or Title I, schools, where at least 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, based on the belief that poverty depressed academic performance. The extra money was supposed to help level the playing field. But since then, the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income schools across the country has actually widened. For a local example, look no further than our chart, where the top-ranked schools are located in upper-middle-class areas—Manoa, Nuuanu and East Honolulu—while the bottom 10 are scattered in poorer communities, such as Kalihi, Waimanalo and Leeward Oahu.

This growing disparity is why, under NCLB, the federal government now requires states to show results in order to get those federal funds.

"Some school districts in Connecticut or Vermont have given up their federal money," says state Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee. "The biggest chunk of change you get from the federal money is for Title I schools, and the total for that and all the rest to our budget in the state of Hawaii is $350 million. We just can't give that all up."

There are 37 possible NCLB benchmarks that schools must meet in order to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress," from graduation and attendance rates to requirements for what the federal government deems to be "qualified teachers."

But the biggest challenge schools face is ensuring that their students meet proficient levels of academic achievement. The DOE measures proficiency in math and reading with its own standards-based test, the Hawaii State Assessment. Our chart shows what portion of students has met those requirements. By 2014, these scores are all supposed to be 100 percent. That includes students who are disabled, economically disadvantaged or have limited English skills. The current average is 27.5 for math, 51 for reading.

Although the federal legislation adds another layer of bureaucracy to Hawaii's school system, it appears to have done some good. Even its critics acknowledge that NCLB has given local schools a real kick in the butt.

"Education has always been the jurisdiction of each individual state, and NCLB is the quintessential, top-down, one-size-fits-all law," Takumi says. "But it has been a wake-up call for schools. That's its one saving grace."

With an eye on the 2014 deadline, the DOE sets the bar higher for schools every three years. More and more students must score well on these standardized tests in order for schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress. As a result, more and more schools will fail.

Hawaii now has the highest percentage of schools missing those benchmarks, as well as the highest number of schools in corrective action, according to a study by Education Week. NCLB requires states to sanction failing schools, with varying degrees of severity. Students at failing Title I schools, for instance, can transfer to more successful schools. Economically disadvantaged students who stick with a failing school could receive tutoring, paid for by the school, to supplement their instruction.

Sanctions are supposed to get tougher for schools that fail to meet their targets, year after year. Already, 41 Hawaii schools are being "restructured" by the DOE, a last-ditch effort that, under NCLB guidelines, could include replacing staff, implementing a new curriculum, decreasing decision-making at the school level, bringing in outside consultants, reorganizing the school entirely or even reopening it as a charter school.

However, when it came time for Hawaii to restructure failing schools under NCLB, it did few of these things.

No ineffectual teachers or principals were replaced for failing to prepare their students. No schools were reconstituted as charter schools. Instead, the DOE threw money at the problem, in some cases spending $200,000 to $400,000 per school on outside consultants.

The DOE did take action, Hamamoto insists. "We have complex area superintendents that become the arm of the state," she says. "They already are my representatives, but [now they] make decisions on the budget and academic delivery of services. It becomes a lot more restrictive."

It's telling that even when the DOE "restructures" a school, it does very little to change it.

On average, teachers and parents in our 259 government-run schools are slightly more satisfied than they were in 2004, the last time we published our "Grading the Public Schools" chart. Student satisfaction, however, has dipped slightly. The good news—student performance on math and reading tests have climbed over the past two years, giving a boost to schools' overall scores. All scores are out of a possible 100 percent.
2003 61% 63.8% 54.4% 43.7% 21% 49%
2004 62.1% 63.9% 53.8% 41.1% 19.1% 48.8%
2006 64.7% 64.0% 53.6% 51.0% 27.5% 52.1%


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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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