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Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Randall Roth: In Hawaii Education, The Buck Stops Nowhere
By News Release @ 1:02 PM :: 13296 Views :: Energy, Environment

by Randall Roth (Presentation made at Statehood Conference education workshop Aug. 21.)

RELATED: Randall Roth dissects Hawaii's failed Department of Education (SB article and pdf of essay)

The governance structure of Hawaii’s public-education system is unlike that of any other state. This would not be cause for concern if our students were thriving, but they are not. Median scores on national exams put Hawaii in the bottom tier of all the states. It’s been that way for many years.

Military and business leaders say the reputation of Hawaii’s public schools makes it difficult to attract top personnel to the islands.

Labor unions say many DOE graduates are unable to pass apprentice exams.

The University of Hawaii says many DOE graduates are not ready to take college-level courses offered at the community colleges. According to placement exams, 79% need remediation in math and more than half in reading.

Some say the problem is inadequate funding. But Hawaii is 13th highest among the 50 states in per-student operating expenditures, $11,060 versus a national average of $9,666.

Hawaii’s all-inclusive per-student annual expenditure is about $15,500. Some blame the private schools for cherry-picking the brightest children, leaving the public schools with ones who collectively are doomed to academic failure.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Calvin Say has expressed this view: “I’ve always said our public school system is doing a fantastic job with the composition of students that we have …. The standardized test scores of Hawaii’s high school students fall below the national norm because all the bright ones … apply to private schools.”

That ignores the power of educational opportunity. As President Obama has said, “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.”

It also ignores that eleven other states have a percentage of school-age children in private schools that is higher than Hawaii’s 16 percent.

It is also wrong to blame the teachers and principals. The Hawaii Business Roundtable said it well: “The teachers and administrators who serve our children are for the most part dedicated, talented professionals. These men and women are the solution to our educational challenges, not the problem. The problem is our system.”

In every other state, individual school boards govern an average of 6 schools, and a statewide organization provides oversight. In Hawaii, a single school board is responsible for 259 schools and for oversight.

No school board can deal effectively with the diverse needs of 259 schools, but the bigger problem is that Hawaii’s board oversees itself. Being accountable to oneself is the same as being accountable to no one. Lack of accountability extends from the governing board throughout the management ranks.

No state education system other than Hawaii has unionized management. Try to imagine the managers of any other enterprise demanding near-absolute job security and salaries unrelated to performance or outcomes. Only Hawaii’s DOE has that.

Yet another accountability quirk is that the Board and system administrators have no control over funding levels and shared control over spending decisions. The Legislature decides how much money to appropriate and frequently mandates how some of the money is to be spent (known as categorical spending, line-item budgeting, and earmarking). Then the Governor selectively decides whether to release money that the Legislature has appropriated.

A task force appointed by Governor Burns 35 years ago pointed out that this unusual arrangement makes accountability difficult if not impossible:

“The Legislature has the primary power of budgeting for the Department of Education and, consequently, can influence or mandate Department of Education programs, policies, directions, [and] activities very heavily.

The Governor exercises this kind of power also with his ability [not to release] funds and the Governor also wields other factors of administrative supremacy that can influence Department of Education operations. The public, therefore, is never sure just who is responsible for a particular decision affecting the Department of Education or who is to be held accountable for its policies.”

When each of three parties has a hand on the steering wheel, each can blame the others for missing the hoped-for destination. As a former Superintendent once put it, “When everyone is in control, no one is in control.”

In addition to the lack of accountability mechanisms normally found in large institutions, Hawaii’s DOE has the most centralized, top-down management in the country. Key decisions are routinely made outside the schools, including how most of the money is spent.

Governor Burns formed a task force that described this as an unnecessary byproduct of statewide (rather than local) funding:

“Centralized funding for education need not result in centralized or standardized decision-making. A persuasive case can be made for decentralizing decision-making in various areas because … the most knowledgeable persons to deal with a problem are oftentimes those closest to the children and the community. Such an approach starts with the role of personnel in the individual school or group of schools, rather than starting at the state office.”

In his 1962 inaugural address, Burns pledged to decentralize the DOE. Newspaper commentators predicted success, partly because the Superintendent of Education at that time favored decentralization and no new law would be required.

Yet the system remained highly centralized throughout Burns’ 12 years in office. Governors Waihee, Cayetano, and Lingle later tried to decentralize the DOE, but they, too, failed.

The Reinventing Education Act of 2004 was mostly window dressing. Five years later, the “reinvented” DOE is still the most centralized, top-down school system in the nation.

That glaring problems have continued for so long is a serious indictment of leadership. Someone should be held accountable … but that’s not possible.

In Hawaii’s one-of-its-kind governance system, the buck stops nowhere.


University of Hawaii law professor Randall Roth made a presentation on the past, present, and future of public education at the 50th Anniversary of Statehood Commemorative Conference, “New Horizons for the Next 50 Years,” at the Convention Center on August 21.


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