Breaking up the DOE Stranglehold on Education in Hawaii with Local School Boards

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    “Laura Brown Image”

    On Friday, Jan. 31, Gov. Linda Lingle testified before the state House of Representatives Education committee on HB 1082 related to the creation of at least seven local school boards to bring decision making closer to each community.


    Over two dozen education reform bills introduced this legislative session carry an overriding theme: the public has been crying out for decentralization of Hawaii’ s statewide education agency for 30 of the 40 years it has been in existence and the time to act is now.

    Deductively, this means either 1) the majority in power in the legislature over the past 30 years didn’t give a hoot about what the public wanted or 2) didn’t have either the know how or will power to fix the mistake in the Hawaii State Constitution that created one statewide education agency.

    Functions of State Education Agencies (SEAs) vs. Local Education Agencies (LEAs) Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. classified as both a state education agency (SEA) and Local Education Agency (LEA). Every other state in the nation has local school districts. Research since 1975 has shown that the larger a school district, the lower the achievement of its students. Hawaii has one of the largest school districts in the country with close to the worst academic performance record.

    The role of an SEA is generally to monitor the performance of the LEA with regard to overall state and federal policies. In Hawaii, that monitoring function is non-existent.

    The concept of the local school board is similar to that of the town meeting, a practice dating back to the original Thirteen Colonies. The purpose of school boards today is to give communities a voice and provide local citizen control over public education.

    The school board hires a superintendent and holds that person responsible for managing the schools in accordance with federal law, state law and the school board’s policies. The local school board:
    *Sets the vision for the community’s education goals
    *Assesses educational needs and values of the community
    *Oversees the school district budget
    *Adopts operating policies
    *Assures systematic review and evaluations of all phases of the school program
    *Advocates on behalf of students and schools

    School board members are elected and serve as a link between schools to the larger community. School board members facilitate communication; in this way, they build support and understanding of public education in their communities.

    How will local governance be best achieved in Hawaii? Many bills focus on amending the constitution to allow for local school boards either by referendum or a majority vote in both the House and Senate. Proposals range from 7 to 17 boards and each define the composition of board members, either elected or appointed. However, either of these options means at least another year of delay toward improvement of Hawaii’s public schools. Alternately, the most expedient way to decentralize may be to revamp existing school/community-based management law to allow for elected high school complex governing boards.

    Buried in the jumble and confusion of words in current legislative proposals, a glimmer of wisdom can be found in SB667 in a quote from the 1999 National Commission on Governing America’s Schools, “The real work of learning happens in the classroom in the interaction between the teacher and student. This interaction is affected by the decisions of the principal, school boards, superintendents, state legislatures, state and federal government.” In other words, local control leads to decisions that are more about classrooms and child-learning than politics and power.

    ”’Laura Brown is a researcher and the education writer for She can be reached via email at:”’