Arguing Over School Reform Will Get Kids Nowhere

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Aside from the expected push for tax increases or new taxes, perhaps the largest issue before the 2004 session of the Legislature is reform of the education system.

The administration established a task force to get both public and professional input on the issue of reforming the educational system and has placed as the cornerstone the creation of seven local school boards. Meanwhile, not to be outdone, the legislative leadership has come up with task forces of its own and put the governor on notice that it will not adopt the local school board approach.


Aside from this major sticking point, there is a lot of common ground in the thinking of both the administration’s task force and the efforts of lawmakers to look at the same problems. For example, there is general agreement that more money needs to get into the classroom. Underlying that effort is a common desire to allow the teachers and the parents to determine how that money is to be used.

Read another way, everyone seems to agree — except perhaps the board of education and the bureaucrats in the department of education — that the schools need to be empowered to determine what kind of education and what kinds of tools and support teachers and students should have. By putting the power to spend those taxpayer dollars into the hands of those who will benefit from those dollars seems all to be logical.

As the states learned with federal programs promulgated during the Sixties, neither the states nor the communities in this state are cookie cutter twins. Each community and each school will have different needs. Putting the funds into the hands of principals and teachers with the advice and support of the parents whose kids are the beneficiaries of those dollars will hold each school and each community accountable for how those dollars are spent.

Instead of some bureaucrat at the “central” office determining if it is textbooks or computers that a school needs, it will be the teachers, parents and the principal who will make that choice. And when it comes to purchasing services or products, it will be the choice of the school, be it the principal or the teachers. If there is a choice between waiting six weeks for someone from the department of accounting and general services to get around to coming out and repairing a broken glass pane or a screen with a “puka” in it and being able to call up the local handyman who can come out in the next hour, can there be any question who will be called?

And if anyone is worried that these school officials will splurge those precious tax dollars, those officials will be mindful that there will be no more dollars forthcoming. So given the choice between paying high utility bills and turning off the lights when a classroom is not in use may just mean there will be enough dollars left over to buy an extra 30 laptop computers.

Holding local school officials accountable is a job that will have to be done by the consumers and those who work for these officials. Evaluations by the parents, the teachers, and perhaps even the students will insure that the consumer is being heard. Test scores will be the standardized measure while consumer evaluations on how well a school is being run and whether or not students are learning will be another. And even more important whether or not the course of study is engaging the students as evidenced by the truancy rates for a particular school.

These are areas where there seems to be common agreement by both the administration and lawmakers. The problem is that both sides appear to have dug in their heels largely along partisan lines. While blaming each other for not reforming the education system might be good political fodder for the 2004 elections, it will not benefit our children. Administration officials need to sit down with lawmakers and begin a dialogue that will lead to compromise and implementation of much needed reforms.

If local school boards are not in the cards, then decision makers need to move on to other recommendations for reform where there is mutual agreement and at least begin the process of changing the way we deliver education in this state. Doing nothing at all just because it comes from the “other side” means another year of setbacks for the children of Hawaii. At that point, voters, parents, teachers — all of us — should hold all sides responsible for doing “nothing.”

Doing “nothing” purely because of partisan politics is unacceptable, because doing nothing merely wastes more taxpayer dollars for a mediocre education.

”’Lowell L. Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, non-profit educational organization. For more information, please call 536-4587 or log on to”’

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