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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?

(page 3 of 5)

Act 51 to the Rescue?

A growing number of people both in and outside of the DOE acknowledge that public education in Hawaii, as it stands today, is not working and believe it can be "reinvented" from the inside out.

Their solution is known as Act 51, or the 2004 Reinventing Education Act for the Children of Hawaii. Backed by the Hawaii Business Roundtable, an influential association of local executives, Act 51 purports to address all of the problems plaguing public schools by bringing equity to school funding, giving principals more control over their budgets while holding them accountable for results and streamlining various functions, such as capital-improvement projects and human resources.

The most contentious aspect of Act 51 is the new formula the DOE will use to allocate funding to each school. In the past, the DOE has funded teaching and other staff positions for each school based on its student population and perceived need. As a result, the amount of money schools actually received varied wildly.

Under the weighted student formula, which goes into effect this school year, how much money each school gets depends on the number and demographics of its students. A base amount of money is allocated for each student, with more added for children with special needs, such as those from low-income families or those whose first language isn't English.

"The money follows the student; it doesn't matter what school the student goes to," says Randy Moore, acting assistant superintendent of the DOE's Office of Business Services. "Schools that are losing money will look at their budgets and say, we can't do it. And they're right. They can't do it the way they've always been doing it. They need to say, 'How do we do it differently, but still provide services to our students?' It's a huge cultural change."

Not everyone agrees that Act 51 is the magic bullet for fixing Hawaii's schools. Our governor, for one, has called the law "fake reform." In 2004, she vetoed the bill, only to have her veto overridden by Democratic state legislators.

It's very difficult to give [principals] 90 percent of [their] budget. If I give [them] the money for food service, the school might say, 'Let's not have lunch.'
— Rep. Roy Takumi, Chairman of the House Education Committee

In addition to providing fairer funding for schools, Act 51 is supposed to give principals more control over their own budgets. But Republicans argue that the law doesn't deliver on that promise.

lthough principals ostensibly control 72 percent of their schools' budgets, there are spending restrictions on all but 30 percent. These restrictions set fixed percentages on how much money principals must spend in at least seven different areas, from custodial services to employee fringe benefits. Most of the 30 percent that principals actually manage go to staff salaries. The bottom line: Principals are left with little money to try anything different.

The state DOE, in the meantime, holds onto its 28 percent share of each school's budget, controlling spending on such institutional functions as food services and utilities.

If a school wanted to turn off its air conditioning during the winter months, save some money and use that for books, it could not do that," says House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan. "If you wanted to save money on transportation, because you figured out a better way to do it, you could not do that. We want schools to decide what their priorities are and fill them. This system does not allow that. It's a facade. It says the people above the school level know what's best for these students."

In fact, the Hawaii Business Roundtable originally recommended that principals be given control over 90 percent of their schools' budgets, much like the model implemented in Edmonton, Canada, in the 1970s, considered the prototype for school-based management.

But state lawmakers disagreed, arguing that too much freedom would actually be bad for schools.

Takumi cites an informal survey he conducted among school principals, in which most indicated that they wouldn't want to be in charge of non-instructional functions, such as utilities and transportation services.

"Over time, schools should be given more of their dollars and more flexibility," Takumi says. "The policy question was how fast and over what time frame do you do this? It's sort of like, if you're starving to death and I give you a big steak, you'll die if you eat that thing. You gotta start slow, have some cabbage first."

Takumi offers up another reason for the DOE to keep control of certain services—and the funding for them—at its central office, rather than delegate them to the schools.

"It's better to have centralized services—payroll, bus transportation, worker comp claims," says Takumi. "It's very difficult to give you 90 percent of your budget. If I give you the money for food service, the school might say, 'Let's not have lunch. Let's save the money and use it for something else.' I do believe there are certain responsibilities we have as a state to make sure children get a nutritious breakfast and lunch."

Could students that aren't doing well do better with more money? Absolutely, yes.
But you can also throw money at a junk school and nothing would change.

— Randy Moore, DOE

It's hard to reinvent education when workers responsible for its delivery are scared of change. The task becomes almost impossible when the system overseeing those workers doesn't convince them that change is for the better, or even trust them to feed kids lunch.

"I don't think [the DOE] has confidence that the schools can do it on their own," Lingle says. "I think they need to have more faith in the people at the school level, more faith in the people in the community. The DOE thinks it can do it better, but the results don't bear that out."

Even with the little added flexibility Hawaii schools received under Act 51's new weighted student formula, the bureaucracy reacted as usual. Principals balked, because, under the new formula, some schools would lose money, meaning they'd have to cut from the few aspects of their school budgets they have control over—staff, supplies and programs.

This is what happens when education reform efforts hit the real world. Confronted with this outcry, the BOE immediately backpedaled on Act 51. It scrapped the DOE's original plan for a 25 percent shift in allocations this year (full implementation would take place in three years). Instead, the board authorized a mere 10 percent shift in funding this year.

All this wrangling over the math behind the weighted student formula and the timetable for its implementation overlooks one very large, inconvenient fact: Funding doesn't necessarily correlate with student performance.

Moore compares several elementary schools with similar socioeconomic challenges but different funding amounts from the state—among them, Kauluwela Elementary near Aala Park ($5,700 per student) and Maunaloa Elementary on Molokai ($13,215 per student). While Maunaloa receives the most money, more of Kauluwela's students are proficient on standardized reading and math tests.

"There is no correlation between throwing more money at them and getting better results in student performance," says Moore. "Could students that aren't doing well do better with more money? Absolutely, yes. But you can also throw money at a junk school and nothing would change."

MOST IMPROVED
Here we identify the single biggest gain made within each of the DOE's four levels of schools—elementary, middle, high and multilevel.
  DISTRICT NO. SPOTS
CLIMBED
GRADE IN
2004
GRADE THIS
YEAR
Ala Wai Elementary HONOLULU 141 D B-
Kawananakoa Middle HONOLULU 41 C+ B-
Radford High CENTRAL 61 D+ C
Honokaa High &
Intermediate
HAWAII 54 F D

*We compared only schools that provided complete scores—teacher, parent and student surveys as well as test results—in both 2004 and 2005.


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