Afterthoughts: The Right Tool for the Job

Everybody wants to reform the school system. But what if it needs replacing?

For an hour, I had grilled Hawaii’s superintendent of education, Patricia Hamamoto, on our underperforming schools. Finally, she asked me, “Do you believe in public education?”

I hesitated. “Public” is a fuzzy word in this context, and it seems to keep people from thinking rationally about our schools. If by public, Hamamoto means universal education, then, yes, I told her, I do believe in public education. A republic cannot stand without educated citizens. Freedom and economic opportunity do not flourish among the ignorant. However, I don’t believe in what we have in Hawaii. The state owns, operates and staffs the public schools, making them, in fact, not public, but government schools—and a monopoly system at that, propped up by compulsory education laws and taxation. It’s an early-20th-century model, one that dominates “public” education nationwide. But we don’t need to believe in this peculiar institution if our goal is an educated citizenry. There are other roads to that goal.

Here’s one: The DOE spends, on average, $9,200 per pupil, every year. What if we took that money away from the DOE and gave it to parents for the sole purpose of securing an education for their children? Social equity—the ideal that everyone deserves a fair shake regardless of the circumstances into which they’re born—doesn’t require that the government run the schools. Social equity can be served by making sure everyone can afford a quality education.

What would $9,200 buy? It may surprise you that only 16 private schools in Hawaii charge this amount or more. More than 110 private schools charge less—considerably less, many charging tuition in the $3,000 to $5,000 range.

Waipahu High School (my alma mater, by the way) has roughly 2,400 students. The school the government provides these students ranks among the worst in the state. Only 25 percent of parents with children at Waipahu High say they would recommend that school to other parents. This means 75 percent are sending their kids to a school they wouldn’t recommend. They just have no other choice.

Give Waipahu’s parents the $9,200-per-kid that the state spends on their behalf and suddenly that community has $22 million, per year, to spend on high school education. What kind of education would they buy with that money? Would they settle for what they’ve been getting?


Listen to people who know the current system best and the failings of government ownership are obvious. How often have you heard that good principals and teachers are successful in spite of the system, not because of it? “Successful principals we interviewed said that their success came in spite of state bureaucracies rather than because of support from them,” wrote the University of Hawaii’s Community Partnership, in a March 26 report on school reform. “Success [in the schools] comes in spite of the system,” said Carl Takamura, executive director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, speaking at a recent DOE function.

Well, duh! Government and bureaucracy go hand in hand. Would-be school reformers, Republicans and Democrats alike, insist we can get rid of the latter without touching the former. Are they aware of some efficient, responsive, flexible government agency that we’ve never seen? DAGS, maybe? The state hospital? The prisons?

How many times have you heard that our current school system is obsolete? Hamamoto said it to the Legislature this session. So did Tony Wagner, the keynote speaker at the “Reinventing Education” summit. Wagner, a Harvard expert on education, said the world has changed, but our schools have not. Education insiders talk about outdated curricula, skills and school models. What they never get to, what even the reformers who challenge them never get to, is the question of ownership.

We’ve given the government-ownership model 100 years to get it right, and we’ve seen the results. Everyone is talking about “reform” this year. I think the word they should be looking for is “replace.” No government agency can be all the things a 21st-century education needs to be. It isn’t the right tool for the job anymore.

When Hamamoto asked me if I believe in public education, I told her the short version of all this. When I was done, she pointed to me and said, “You should write that.”

Even after all these years, when a teacher gives me an assignment, I can’t help but see it through.