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Appointed BOE deserves try

LAST UPDATED: 5:51 p.m. HST, Oct 28, 2010

Hawaii's public school system has attained much of the will and some of the means it has been lacking to start down the road of educational reform. The appointment of a new superintendent who has taken the hand-off and seems ready to run with the torch, and the awarding of a Race to the Top federal grant for reforms are both promising developments.

But what's still lacking is cohesion among the disparate elements of leadership that can drive this change. The fact remains that the superintendent, school board, Legislature and executive branch all have a hand in school funding and governance. Too many forces are tugging in too many directions, which often produces an unfocused result.

The state Board of Education is a crucial part of the state's educational engine, but its functioning as an entity selected through the electoral process has been less than optimal. The voters will be asked Nov. 2, through a state constitutional amendment, whether they should relinquish the right to choose board members. The answer is yes.

In recent weeks, a number of community leaders -- from the educational, political and business sectors -- have made persuasive arguments why a "yes" vote on that question is the best way to empower the school system to be innovative and responsive to new opportunities.

Taking away the direct influence of voters on the school board should not be done lightly. But in this case, it would seem that many voters have abdicated that right on their own. In the primary election, voters left blank 43 percent of their choices in the school board races. This is an appalling statistic, especially considering that the overall voter turnout was already low. The takeaway is that the elected board is chosen by an extremely small proportion of the electorate.

And many members over the years have been elected not on the basis of their qualities, but on name recognition; the influence of unions and other interest groups with the means to bolster that recognition is a factor. None of this can be read as particularly democratic, in any case.

Circumstances behind the ballot choice are not ideal. Gov. Linda Lingle, who preferred to eliminate the school board altogether, had no authority to veto a constitutional amendment proposal put to voters. But she did veto House Bill 2377, which spelled out the appointment process, and that leaves voters facing a wild card. They will have to enable a change in how the school board is constituted without knowing how it will happen.

Still, the better choice is to take the step toward increased accountability in public schools by making board members answer to the governor directly, who in turn will have to account to voters for the results of the board's action -- or inaction.

If voters OK an appointed board, legislators would likely adopt something similar to HB 2377, which sets up a selection panel to assemble a list of qualified candidates from which the governor would appoint. That panel itself is a collection of appointees made by the governor, legislative leaders and the Hawaii P-20 Council, a coalition representing a broad base of the community. This is akin to the mechanism for nominating judicial appointees, for example.

However, it may have been fortuitous that Lingle vetoed this particular measure, because the bill gave the governor freedom to remove school board members without spelling out whether cause for their dismissal would be necessary. If the appointed-board amendment passes Nov. 2, the Legislature must make reconsideration of HB 2377 a top priority. And it must be clear that board members should be appointed for a set term and cannot be easily dismissed without cause.

Certainly, the model of an appointed school board is not perfect. Some have proposed further changes, such as reserving a few board seats to be filled by election; this idea may have merit.

But meanwhile, Hawaii stands on the brink of making desperately needed school reforms. The surest way to seize this moment and capitalize on it would be to say "Yes" to an appointed Board of Education on Nov. 2.

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