Hawaii’s Superintendent of Schools Addresses Legislature-Education Reform Plan Excludes Taxpayers, Parents

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    Parents and community members attending Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto’s address to the Legislature yesterday were anxious to hear a plan that would allow unfettered parent choice and community monitoring of Department of Education expenditures of taxpayer monies.

    Flanked by a gallery full of teachers, principals, students and union officials — who had privileged front row seating set aside for them — one parent asked how much taxpayers were paying for these people to skip work and who was minding the schools?


    Hamamoto opened her speech by describing her frustrating experience as a teacher in the Department of Education. She said she once tried to teach economics to her seventh graders because they were not performing at grade level in math. She set up a system so that students who turned in work that was acceptable got tokens to buy classroom supplies. Hamamoto said that she was supposed to just hand out supplies with no strings attached. In Hawaii, parents must often spend up to $100 to buy these supplies for their child’s use in the classroom. The outcome of this lesson was that students turned in good work. The point of the story was that “teachers shouldn’t have to work around the system; the system should work for them.” The point of addressing student math deficiencies with a specific curriculum was not mentioned.

    Hamamoto then described how, as a principal, she learned to “work around the system” as principals continue to do today. She then stated that the central bureaucracy is not the problem, because it has been changing since she took office two years ago. What has not changed, said Hamamoto, are the principals, teachers and students who are still dedicated to “finding a way around the system.”

    The superintendent then characterized Hawaii’s public education system as broken, obsolete and the “single biggest problem we face as a state.” The reason was that the schools were not teaching basic English and math and cannot even qualify for journeyman apprenticeships in the building trades. “We are failing them,” she said. She added that principals and teachers would be responsible for making sure children could read by third grade.

    Vowing not to spend any time talking about “education governance” because that was up to the politicians, her focus would be on “reinventing” the education system. This will not involve school boards, she said, because they will “add more layers of bureaucracy between our state school board and the schools.” It was unclear to the audience if this was her own opinion or if she was speaking on behalf of a Board of Education position.

    Hamamoto then outlined the need for more lump-sum budgeting for schools based on a weighted student formula and more principal training, with school/community-based management councils at individual schools responsible for developing an accountability plan and for decisions on spending. “SCBM councils are controlled by the principals,” said one teacher. “They don’t work.”

    Then, contradicting this plan for local decision-making, Hamamoto proposed a top-down mandate that all schools would have to conform to a year-round schedule. “It might be possible at the elementary and middle school level, provided we eliminate multi-track; however it is not practical or prudent to have high school students removed from the workplace during the summer, particularly when we have a superintendent that is touting gearing students towards trade schools rather than college,” remarked Maryanne Selander, a member of the Mililani Neighborhood Board.

    The superintendent’s plan for “reinventing education” includes performance contracts for principals, giving incentives for performance, while working with “partners in organized labor.” Principals would receive 12 months of pay and teachers 11 months of pay. The DOE would be released from all other state departments and would be free to hire, budget and do construction and repairs. However, the DOE, in spending $1.7 billion tax dollars each year “needs to be managed.”

    Hamamoto stated that a central administration has to be maintained to take care of all contracts, because of the “efficiency of centralization.” However, she promised “to continue to aggressively look for ways of managing our needs cost-effectively and responsibly.”

    While the superintendent states that it is the DOE who must do its job without interference, parents and taxpayers have not had any control over the lack of accountability for DOE expenditures and no control over the department’s inability to raise student performance to minimum standards.

    The superintendent also announced that on March 27, 2004, the Board of Education and the superintendent will convene a statewide Education Summit in Honolulu. All members of the community will be welcome to attend and work collectively to develop the nuts and bolts of “reinventing education.” This means changing the entire government system, not just the department of education.

    Although Hamamoto she did not want to discuss “education governance,” she left some members of the audience feeling as if her ambitions exceeded the quest for unchecked DOE autonomy from state government to perhaps even making a run to be Hawaii’s next governor.

    ”’Laura Brown is the education reporter and researcher for HawaiiReporter.com and the education policy analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. She can be reached via email at”’ mailto:laurabrown@hawaii.rr.com