By now, all of us have likely heard or read something about the Furlough Fridays and its impact on our state. Our public schools have received the most attention in the media due to the 17 days of lost classroom instruction.
Our public school instructional time will fall from 178 classroom days to 161 days. This drop embarrassingly places Hawaii as the worst state in the nation in terms of teaching or learning days. We have garnered national and international news because of the decisions and agreements made. As a comparison, Japan teaches 243 days a year and Korea 220 days.
Most comments I have heard are critical of the reduction. Parents throughout our state have expressed anger and disbelief at the lack of commitment to our education system. Even the Secretary of Education under President Obama has offered his stinging remarks about this sad situation. Many of my colleagues in the Legislature are also dissatisfied with the current dilemma we face, and feel it is wrong to balance our state budget on the backs of our students’ education.
Instead of waiting until next January 2010 to look at the present state of education, some of my colleagues had met and decided to initiate action. No one except parents and advocates had been pushing government to act, so a petition was created, and I was able to get 15 state senators to sign asking for a special session to address the Friday Furloughs in our schools. We also went as far as to seriously consider the Hurricane Relief Fund, Rainy Day Fund or other funding sources to reduce the 17 days of furloughs.
Certain House members also felt the same and have begun their own petition. As of this writing, 23 had signed the House petition.
We realize it will not be easy to call for a special session. Our plan is to have all stakeholders support a plan to make this current school year whole. The Governor, unions, BOE, DOE, and Legislature must all agree to a temporary solution. Then it would be imperative upon the Legislature and Governor to develop a plan next session to deal with the total state budget and the coming years. If one party does not agree with a plan, the idea to salvage the current school year will fail.
Timing is paramount in this process. I believe we have a small window of opportunity to address this issue before the end of the year. If we do not, the 17 days will become reality, and we will carry the label as the state with the lowest teaching days in the nation. Our childrens’ education and future are on the line, and stakeholders must work together for the sake of our kids.
Some have stated we must be fair to everyone and wait until next session to address the problem at the statewide level. They comment that some unions are still negotiating with the Governor so there is uncertainty in the budget. They also feel the budgetary situation may get worse before it gets better. I counter that reducing school days to 163 is a terrible option and unacceptable. If we really value education, we will collaborate and create a plan to save our public schools. Some have stated the governor and unions should reopen their negotiations. If that can happen that would be great, however, other options should be considered lacking that outcome.
Several ideas are being circulated, and I know it is possible to keep our keiki in school if we have the will and resolve to do so.
One involves borrowing $50 million from the Hurricane Relief Fund with payback language and the other uses federal stimulus funds and HRF.
A third option could incorporate the rainy day fund into the equation.
Simultaneously, we are looking at the next budget cycle next session and the alternatives which will face us. We will likely have to find new revenue sources or make more cuts in government services and programs or a combination of both.
New revenue sources does not automatically mean new or higher taxes, however, I have received many e-mails from people willing to pay more taxes if they went to education. Everything will be on the table next session to deal with the budget crisis we are in. Some estimates are we will have over a billion dollar shortfall for next session.
Many experts say the recession has bottomed out but the recovery will be slow. As government leaders we understand this and will do what we can to maintain a high quality of life for our residents. The ideal outcome for me is that we are able to save the current school year and have at least 170