Whether DOE Should Have a Monopoly on Our Kids

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Over the last several years, we have been saying plenty about the Hawaii Department of Education (DOE), and not all of it has been peachy.  We’ve talked about DOE fighting with other agencies regarding getting kids to school in Kihei.  We’ve decried its multi-million dollar but imbecilic effort to cool the classrooms with solar air conditioners that only worked for half the day.  We were appalled by its slamming the door on the employee unions, including HSTA, regarding working conditions during the pandemic.  And some of our loudest gripes about the agency were about its lack of transparency; for example, it put the Hawaii Education Association through the wringer with 4-1/2 years of stalling and litigation to produce fiscal data that was sorely outdated when it was finally turned over.

Do, or should, the parents of Hawaii have choices when deciding to have their kids educated by the behemoth agency we give $2.5 billion of funding each year?

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One alternative we already have in this State is that of charter schools.  Charter schools are public schools, which do not charge tuition and are staffed by public union teachers and other public employees.  Many are managed by nonprofit organizations.  All are regulated by the State Public Charter School Commission.  The Commission enters into contracts with those wishing to run a charter school and sets targets relating to academic, organizational, and financial performance.  The contracts typically run for five years, after which the Commission decides whether the contracts will be renewed and for how long.  

Not all of the charter schools have operated trouble-free, and the Commission on occasion has stepped in to reorganize the governing board of a school.

Another alternative, which we do not have in Hawaii, is a school voucher program.  Such a program exists in 32 states.  Parents are granted a certain amount of public money per school age child.  That money then can be applied to educational expenses such as private school tuition.  It is one way of giving parents, especially those with lower incomes, some options regarding how their children are going to be educated.  Some reports say that the additional competition for the students that comes with the program results in a modest improvement in performance of the public schools.  On the other hand, the studies that have been done do not show noticeable improvement in student performance.  In addition, such programs are generally opposed by parties like the government employee unions, who complain that scarce taxpayer dollars are being given to institutions unaccountable to taxpayers (namely the private schools), and urge that the money would be better spent improving the public schools.

School vouchers have been a plank in the national Republican Party platform for some years now.

Another variation on this theme is Education Savings Accounts, which are becoming increasingly popular in “red” states.  These states deposit money into a state-supervised account that parents can use for education-related expenses, including costs of home schooling as well as private school tuition.  The pros and cons of such programs mirror those of school voucher programs.

With all of these policy choices available to voters and lawmakers, how are we going to be able to put together a system that competently educates our keiki and does not waste precious taxpayer money?

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