"The Death of Public School": Ten Years Later

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What’s next?

Hawaii’s public-education system hasn’t gotten much better in the past 10 years, but it hasn’t been for lack of promises and action plans. Today, in 2011, the Department of Education is fired up about a number of reform initiatives. There is a plethora of programs and changes on the horizon, too new to have been put into practice yet. If anyone expects changes over the next 10 years, they’ll be looking for them to come from these ideas.

This past November, 57 percent of voters checked “yes” to having the governor appoint the members of the Board of Education. While those who opposed it argued that it would strip voters’ rights, with the Furlough Friday debacle still fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s likely that most voters just wanted something—anything—different.

It’s too soon to tell whether the governor’s board will be any better, but education stakeholders are hopeful. Many of us have had the experience of looking at the slate of BOE candidates on the election ballot and not recognizing any of the names, not to mention their credentials. The elections came across as awfully low-stakes, given that the board oversees a $1.3 billion budget, and deals with a hugely complex, bureaucratic system.

“I think there was a concern that a vast majority of individuals were not looking closely at BOE elections and making educated decisions,” says Sen. Jill Tokuda, the chair of the Education Committee.

Compared with the old board, the new BOE lineup is notably business-savvy and boasts a diverse set of backgrounds: chair Don Horner is CEO of First Hawaiian Bank; Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui, until recently the CEO of YWCA Oahu; Jim Williams, the vice-chair of Voyager Public Charter School; and Brian DeLima, an attorney and former Hawaii County Council member.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie says, “I picked these folks based on the variety of resources they brought to the table, all of which had, as an underlying premise, their capacity to understand what organization is all about … the ability to carry through on that without micromanaging. This is a real board, not a management team.”

In short, Abercrombie takes direct responsibility for the board’s success or failure. The new structure also means that there is a more direct chain of command between the governor and the board, as well as between the board and the superintendent, the DOE and the Legislature.

“I would also hope it unifies some actions in regards to education,” says Tokuda. “so that you don’t just have a governor’s agenda, a Board of Education’s agenda or a legislative agenda on what should be done for our schools.”

Education leaders are calling for the board to take a more proactive approach in their governance. “I think the defining factor is going to be when they develop a new vision for where Hawaii’s school system needs to go,” says George. “They’ll likely be holding themselves and the system accountable for achieving that vision.”

Horner says that the new board will spend less time on policies, and more time on strategy, while ensuring that execution of its strategies happens in a timely manner.

First on the agenda, he says, is an audit of the board’s policies, to see what it can delegate. Everything the board does is on the table; the audit will establish which of the BOE’s responsibilities the superintendent should carry out, and vice versa. Horner says the long overdue audit sends a clear message to the other education entities—things are changing. He pledges that the board will hold the Department of Education more accountable, especially when it comes to the Race to the Top initiatives. Even how the board conducts itself is being retooled; it will be “more businesslike,” he says. The board meetings will be shorter and less frequent, and will no longer be held in school cafeterias, as they have been, traditionally.

On a national scale, Hawaii is following in line with how other states organize their boards of education. Maryland, which boasts the country’s top public-education system, also has a governor-appointed board (see “The Maryland Lesson,” last year’s public schools feature, in our May 2010 issue).

Like other states, Hawaii faces a dwindling budget, which means the new BOE has some tough calls to make. “Over the last three years, much of the easy decisions were made, and now we’re down to making the difficult ones,” says Horner. Specifically, cutting $110 million from the existing budget over the next two years.

“I’m under no illusion that this is going to be an easy change, particularly when we have the budgetary woes that we do,” says George. “But sometimes change is easier to make when the situation is dire. When you get the right kind of leaders, who see crisis as an opportunity to open conversations that would have been deemed unthinkable in easier times, you get people stepping up to the plate.”

Racing to the Top?

The Department of Education finally had something to celebrate this past August, when it scored $75 million in federal funds as part of the Race to the Top program. The U.S. Department of Education awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia funding—through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—to reform their public-education systems. The grant—a figure based on the size of our student population—will be distributed over the next four years.

“It was a huge accomplishment for Hawaii, especially since we were coming from so far behind as a result of the Furlough Fridays,” says Tokuda. “I’m very hopeful. Getting Race to the Top, having an appointed board system come into play, it’s kind of like the stars are aligning.” Tokuda isn’t alone in her thinking. Everyone we talked to was excited and optimistic about the potential for system-wide transformation; Race to the Top is being billed as the education reform for Hawaii.

While most of the programs are still in the conceptual stage, with the timeline of implementation subject to change, the projects are specific. A little more than $8 million is going to student performance assessments, around $10 million is going toward a longitudinal-data system that tracks student performance from preschool through college and $7 million goes to streamlining the organization of the different departments. The two most heavily funded reform areas are implementing performance-based contracts for teachers and principals—more than $30 million—and providing targeted support to low-performing schools. These schools will receive a $19 million shot in the arm, and include schools along the Waianae Coast and in Pahoa on the Big Island. These areas have been dubbed the Zones of School Innovation; the DOE wants to roll out many of the Race to the Top initiatives in these areas first.

It’s true, the state’s Race to the Top proposals—which comprise more than 1,000 pages—look good on paper. Hawaii followed federal guidelines in crafting its applications for the targeted grant program, explaining how the DOE would whip itself into shape in four major reform areas, including by improving teacher and principal quality, developing standards and assessments, turning around low-performing schools, and developing data systems to track student achievement.

At a glance, one could mistake the Race to the Top initiatives for No Child Left Behind reforms. While Race to the Top is separate from NCLB, the overall goals—establishing standards-based reform with measurable targets, bringing in highly qualified teachers, improving low-achieving schools—are virtually the same.

The difference is the approach. NCLB has for 10 years been the law of the land, mandatory for all 50 states—and still is—while Race to the Top is a targeted grant program that benefits only the states that won. Will a carrot work where the stick hasn’t?

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,May

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