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"The Death of Public School": Ten Years Later


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Don Horner, CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, is the chair of the new, appointed Board of Education.

Photo: Courtesy of Don Horner

Education Reinvented?

Of course, there have been more concrete efforts at reform. The most ambitious one in the past decade has been the Reinventing Education Act, popularly referred to as Act 51. Created in 2004, it pulled together a laundry list of reform ideas that were supposed to, among other things, eliminate the inequalities between rich and poor districts, and give principals more control over their own school budgets, while requiring more accountability from them. Expectations ran high.

Seven years later, the verdict on Act 51 is mixed. Terrence George, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of longtime education-proponent Castle Foundation, says he’d give the program a B-minus or C-plus. “It did not put principals on a performance contract. It did not truly give principals control over 70 to 90 percent of their budget. … It was not a strong enough reform, and it did not have clear goals.”

Certain provisions of the Act did make a positive difference, says George. The law set aside money to create a principal’s leadership academy, giving the DOE more resources to mentor and coach principals. It created a set of school community councils, which offer a way to get input from the general public.

Most notably, Act 51 helped cut the DOE’s backlog of repair and maintenance 45 percent in 10 years, from $720 million in 2001, to $392 million this past September—a function of increased allocations from the state Legislature, as well as the transfer of repair and maintenance functions from the Department of Accounting and General Services to the DOE, reducing bureaucracy.

On the other hand, Act 51’s core concept, a weighted student formula that based a school’s funding level on individual student need, rather than enrollment, was quickly compromised and hobbled. As soon as specific schools faced the prospect of reduced funding, schools complained, and the DOE ended up creating separate funds of additional cash that canceled out the intended impact of the reforms.

Randy Moore, the assistant superintendent of the DOE’s office of School Facilities and Support Services, says, “The blow has been cushioned, and continues to be cushioned. We still have not migrated to a complete weighted student formula, without supplements, or subsidies.” The issue, he says, is the unwillingness to weather the transformation that’s required by budget reshuffling. “It’s always painful,” he says. “Money at the school level translates to adults on the payroll. If you have less money, that means some adult needs to go.”

Change is difficult at the best of times, and the DOE’s sheer size and inertia have made meaningful improvement a seeming impossibility. Don Horner, the new chair of the Board of Education, is well aware of the obstacles ahead of him. Compared with his experience in the private sector as the CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, he says that government work is constrained by regulations, bureaucracy and layers upon layers of upper and middle managers. “Sometimes in all of those processes, the student gets forgotten, and the employee gets forgotten,” Horner says. “I do not view the state of Hawaii as a very good employer in regard to the way they communicate and train and support their employees.”

Randy Roth, a UH law professor and education reform proponent, says that in the years he’s been following education in Hawaii, he’s become skeptical of the perpetual promises.

“It’s such a large enterprise, and so many people are involved, and so many of them are competent, well-intentioned and working hard, that I hate to say what I’m about to say. But when you look at the issue from a high altitude, not judging individual teachers or principals or superintendents, I don’t see where public education in Hawaii has progressed at all in the past 10 years.”

Despite the year-over-year stagnancy of our school system, it took the loss of 17 instructional days to furloughs during the ’09/’10 school year to really grab the attention of the public. “It struck me as unfathomable that teachers of young children would say, ‘If you’re going to pay me less, I’m not going to show up as much,’” says Roth. “It put a spotlight on just how bad things have gotten. It was just so clear that children’s interests were the first to go out the window. When politicians had to pick between children and the union, the winner was clear.”

In a spectacular example of looking on the bright side of things, HSTA president Wil Okabe says furloughed students actually benefited from being home with their parents, instead of at school: “If you noticed, with the furloughs, the [2010 HSA] test scores went up. And the reason they went up is that the parents were engaged with the students to be able to support the teachers.”

For the past 10 years, we’ve observed that the adults responsible for this system seem remarkably untroubled by its failings. Interviewing Okabe, we asked him whether we should be worried that Hawaii is 44th in the nation in math and reading. His response: “I don’t think so. I think we should be looking for the 21th century of how we’re going to prepare our kids to be able to engage in the working world. We’re not like any other state.”

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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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