Editor's Page: What's the Difference?

Hawaii’s public schools face challenges, we’re told. None of them turn out to be unique.

Photo: Linny Morris

This month, we once again take stock of Hawaii’s public school system. It’s a feature that’s become an annual commitment, and, each year, we get accused of dwelling on the negative. No one likes to get bad news, so I suspect there’s an element of “blame the messenger” to this reaction.

We would not need to do these articles if Hawaii’s schools were a beacon of excellence. We would probably never have taken up this crusade if our schools were even average, ranking say, 25th in the nation. But they don’t. They consistently rank near the bottom, and have for years—so we must do these articles, because it’s our job, our responsibility, to help our readers understand their community better so that all of us, the Hawaii public, can do something to make life better.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

If Hawaii has one of the worst public school systems in America, which state has the best? Maryland, according to the January 2009 “Quality Counts” report by the nation’s newspaper of record for education, Education Week.

So what makes Maryland, and not Hawaii, so successful in running its schools? What’s so different about Maryland?


The Maryland example explodes every defense I have ever heard as to why Hawaii’s Department of Education has such a hard time delivering results.

Ever hear someone say Hawaii doesn’t spend enough on students? Our annual operating budget for the state DOE is $2.4 billion, drawn from federal, state and local sources, for about 159,000 students. That’s $15,214 per student.

Maryland spends $12,426 per student, drawn from federal, state and local sources.

Ever hear someone blame the local teacher’s union for putting teachers above students (yes, including here in these pages over the years)? Maryland teachers belong to all sorts of unions, too—the American Federation of Teachers, Baltimore Teachers Union, Maryland State Teachers Union.

 Ever hear someone say, “Hawaii’s student body includes a lot of foreign-born kids who don’t even speak English, so what do we expect the teachers to do with them?” The Annie E. Casey Foundation tracks statistics such as these,  to help “vulnerable kids and families succeed.” According to its Kids Count data center, 4 percent of Hawaii children have difficulty speaking English, or about 9,000 kids, as of 2004. In Maryland? It’s 3 percent, or 26,000 kids.

Ever hear someone say that the DOE has a lot of high-poverty schools, where the kids have a miserable home life and no family support for education? As of 2006, the poverty rate in Hawaii was 9.3 percent. In Maryland, it was 7.8 percent. Yes, Maryland has poor people, too, dysfunctional families, teen pregnancy, gang violence and all the social ills that seem to come with poverty. Ever watch The Wire?

Ever hear someone say, “The private schools siphon off all the ‘good’ students, so all the DOE gets are the challenging ones. Imagine what our DOE math and reading scores would look like if their averages included all the high achievers at Punahou and Iolani!”

Nationwide, about 11 percent of school-age children attend private schools. In Hawaii, it’s an unusually high 18 percent.

In Maryland? An unusually high 18 percent.

Look, folks, we don’t have to settle. Somebody out there knows how to do this whole public school thing. I don’t think any of us in Hawaii—taxpayers, teachers, parents or students—would mind it one little bit if our DOE would lean over Maryland’s shoulder and do the right thing:

Copy its homework.