The Hawaii DOE administration has decided that it’s $2 billion+ annual budget (more than $10,000 per pupil-year) will not support 180 days of instruction. Rather than cut bureaucratic bloat, the DOE and public-sector unions negotiated a reduction in the length of the school year.

In his commentary “Governor Lingle Shoots Herself in the Foot” (Hawaii Reporter commentary, 2009-Nov.-16) Bob Jones writes: “I’ve watched and/or covered every Hawaii governor from Jack Burns on, and I can say without even a touch of partisanship creeping in that this one hasn’t done any major policy moves that will be positively remembered, while the school furloughs will go down in history, in national news archives, and likely will sink whatever momentum was going for Duke Aiona to have a shot at being governor next year.”

Governor Lingle offered a serious alternative to teacher furloughs years ago, when she proposed to restructure Hawaii’s government-operated school system into seven independent districts. While this proposal did not go far enough (the average school district in North Dakota, the top-performing US State by some measures, enrolls fewer than 500 students) and while the amendment process is inappropriate for incremental change, the Governor’s proposal addressed the fundamental flaw in the current system, the negative economy of scale in the Hawaii DOE. The Legislature (D) defeated the Governor’s proposal, and later substituted the Reinventing Education Act (Act 51), which further centralized funding and decision-making within the DOE.

In abstract, the education industry is an unlikely candidate for State (government, generally) operation. Beyond a very low level there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education business. Education only marginally qualifies as a public good as economists use the term and the “public goods” argument implies subsidy and regulation, at most, not State operation of an industry.

Federalism and markets embody humility. If a policy dispute turns on a matter of taste, multiple local policy regimes of a competitive market in services allows or the expression of varied tastes, while the contest for control of a State (government, generally)-monopoly provider must create unhappy losers.

If a policy dispute turns on a matter of fact, where “What works?” is an empirical question, multiple local policy regimes or a competitive market in services will generate more information than will a State-monopoly enterprise. A State-monopoly enterprise is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls, a retarded experimental design.

How to address budget cuts to government schools? If Hawaii’s education industry had been privatized (through vouchers or a Parent Performance Contracting or reorganized as complex-level independent districts, with collective bargaining, teacher certification, and curriculum decided at the district level, we would have experimental assessment of “what works”, including how to handle budget restrictions.

Governor Lingle was right. Bob Jones is (again) wrong.

‘Malcolm Kirkpatrick is a Hawaii teacher who has devoted over a decade to investigating the DOE’s management and financial practices. He blogs at http://harriettubmanagenda.blogspot.com/ Reach him at mailto:malcolmkirkpatrick@yahoo.com’

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