Afterthoughts: Strange Lessons

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, state government has taken over … its own schools.

illustration: michael austin

This year, the state House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for the Board of Education to create a database of fat teachers. Yes, fat teachers. Because fat is bad. And teachers are role models. The resolution called on the Department of Education to report its numbers of obese teachers to the Legislature every session and determine “appropriate measures” for teachers who cannot keep trim.

This, folks, is what you get when the schools are run by state government. But oddly enough, we keep forgetting this simple fact: Whatever else our public schools workers may be—principals, teachers, custodians—they are first and foremost state workers, micromanaged by a multitude of forces, but lead by none. The public worker unions, the Board of Education and, especially, the Legislature, all these and more can impose their agendas on the government schools.

I don’t know what explains our inability to see the public schools as a government bureaucracy. But we just can’t seem to do it. How else can we explain recent headlines such as, “State to take over 24 lagging schools,” or “More schools may face takeover” and “Schools prepare for takeover by state.”

The story was that, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, 24 public schools in Hawaii had failed to meet benchmarks for improvement, triggering the most drastic measure that the law can require—restructuring. These schools must come under new management. But all the discussion I’ve seen about this development overlooked that the state has always run these schools. The state ran them through all the years in which they failed to progress. The state will continue to run them now. So how is this a “takeover?”

The state Department of Education has an answer for that question. Lagging schools will be placed under the direct control of their regional DOE superintendents. Um, OK … would anyone like to explain what these regional superintendents were in charge of before they were put in charge of the schools in their regions?

Because the schools are a government bureaucracy, hardly anything about it is clear, especially when the question is, Who is in charge? Our own superintendent of schools, Pat Hamamoto, has publicly bemoaned that she has remarkably little authority to get her job done. After generations of leaderless state ownership, Hawaii’s government school system has reached a new low—of all the states, Hawaii has the highest percentage of schools that need to be restructured under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Apparently, the only authority powerful enough to change Hawaii’s government schools for the better is an even bigger government. In the 1990s, the Felix Consent Decree put the DOE under federal scrutiny to ensure that it would finally take care of special needs children. Now the federal No Child Left Behind Act is holding local schools accountable.

It’s been working, too. Even the 24 schools up for restructuring had made some tremendous improvements, just not enough to meet the federal demands. And other schools have turned themselves around. Consider, for example, August Ahrens Elementary in Waipahu, where, in the 2002-2003 school year, just 25 percent of disadvantaged fifth graders were proficient in reading. By the 2003-2004 school year, 39 percent of disadvantaged fifth graders were proficient: that’s a 56 percent increase in a year.

But note the key difference here—the feds are not trying to run the schools themselves, staffing them with federal workers. They are simply setting higher standards.

Imagine if that had been Hawaii’s approach all along. Then generations of independent teachers would have been free to teach, without having to worry about their waistlines.