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Hawaii's governor wants a makeover for state's school system

Monday, December 01, 2003

By Jane Elizabeth, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Forget the luaus, leis and the brilliant island sun.

In education circles, Hawaii is known for what it doesn't have: School boards. And to those fed up with their own malfunctioning boards, that could seem like utopia.

So why does Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle want to break decades of tradition by turning the state-run schools over to a bunch of local boards?

Louis Lanzano, AP photo
Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle in a February visit to the studios of the Fox News Channel in New York.

"The public knows and we should not be afraid to say it -- Hawaii's public school system is broken," said Lingle in her state-of-the-state address this year. "It is like no other system in America, and it's not working."

Lingle believes the top-heavy system, run by one massive "school board" of more than 30,000 people -- the state Department of Education -- is hurting children across the state.

About 64 percent of Hawaiian schools didn't pass this year's statewide achievement tests. On two well-known national benchmarks -- the SAT and the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) -- Hawaiian students are mired at the bottom.

Teacher turnover is high, as is the dropout rate and the number of parents who send their children to private schools.

"There are a lot of different indicators that Hawaiian education is not working very well," said Randy Roth, a law professor on leave from the University of Hawaii who serves as Lingle's senior adviser on education. "We're not remotely close to where we should be."

To Lingle, a Republican who won election last year after campaigning for school governance reform, it's not just about test scores. She objects to small decisions being made by bureaucrats far away from the school buildings.

For instance: Lahainaluna High School in Maui wanted to change the date of the school's graduation ceremony -- what Lingle called "a manini (small) change supported by students, parents, teachers, administrators." But it took weeks and dozens of meetings, visits and documents between the school and state education officials to accomplish that.

The education department even controls the school bus schedules from the state capital, Roth noted.

The atypical school governance system in Hawaii was created in 1840 by King Kamehameha III. Today, there are about 183,000 students in 283 schools on seven islands -- all run by a state education department that employs 33,690 people.

Lingle's initial proposal to create local boards, which would require a statewide referendum, quickly became a political hot potato in the Democrat-controlled Legislature and died earlier this year.

So in early October, she set up a 25-member committee known as CARE -- Citizens Achieving Reform in Education -- to devise another plan with input from educators, businesspeople, union officials, parents and others.

Last week, the group completed 10 two-hour meetings in every part of the state, from Kauai to the Big Island. It plans to submit a revised reform proposal to Lingle by mid-December. She then will devise legislation to present to state lawmakers, Roth said, and a new governing system could be in place by fall 2005.

While the details aren't set, the state's role under Lingle's plan would be to set general standards for education, perform audits and publish school report cards. While Lingle would prefer elected local boards, there's been support for at least some appointed members, Roth said. Whether the state board would be elected or appointed also hasn't been worked out.

The group may recommend only about seven local school boards, Roth said, because of worries about micromanaging.

"We don't think that local school boards are a silver bullet. We just feel that it's obvious that you need to have something closer than the state board, but not someone sitting at the principal's side."

The committee also could recommend requiring training and certain qualifications for school board candidates, he said.

Though Lingle has been criticized by some political opponents for moving too fast on education reform, Roth said many Hawaiians agree with Lingle that changes can't wait any longer.

"This has been studied enough," he said. "It's time to take it to the next level where something is actually done."

Post-Gazette education writer Jane Elizabeth can be reached at or 412-263-1510.

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