Sunday, November 29, 2015         


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DOE budget cuts endanger stellar learning programs


Public schools administrators have tried to safeguard the classroom from most of the fiscal pain the state has felt throughout this dismal era. But it now appears that this shield has worn right through, and the latest round of cuts approved last week really hurt where it counts.

The only glimmer of hope gleaned was the Board of Education's expressed resolve to search for more efficient ways to run the school system so student interests can be better protected. Restructuring the Department of Education into a leaner administrative system should be one of the primary goals of the newly appointed board.

In order to reduce the DOE budget by $32.8 million over the next two years, the board on Tuesday approved a plan to whack $7.8 million from the per-pupil allotment — the "weighted student formula" — that schools have to spend. On average, each school will get about $28,000 less. Further, funds are being cut from adult education and alternative learning programs. While these are not core to the public schools' mission, losing these unconventional tracks to learning, even for the short term, is distressing.

But possibly the saddest outcome of this latest paring is that the dedicated appropriations for the DOE's high school learning centers will be folded into the weighted student formula.

This will all but sound the death knell for stellar programs such as the Castle Performing Arts Center in Kaneohe. Similar magnet schools for the arts have been established at campuses statewide. Other learning centers function as academies in communication arts (Kalaheo), world languages (Moanalua), science technology (Farrington), business (McKinley) … the list goes on, with 30 centers in all.

The federal law aimed at raising student academic performance levels, the No Child Left Behind Act, was never designed to ensure a fully rounded education for students. In fact, teachers overwhelmed by testing duties say it eats up time for everything but the core disciplines. It was the availability of specialized learning centers that provided focus on subjects that resonated with many who otherwise are disenchanted with their studies. Some of them turned up at the hearing to defend the programs. Advocates for the Castle center and the Central Theater Arts Academy submitted especially passionate testimony. Central, said alumna Amber Davison, "defined my high school experience. It redefined me, for good."

One student pointed out how much the Windward community appreciates its learning center — that certainly spotlights the need to explore new private partnerships that might help keep these public programs intact, enriching the educational experience. Community groups and businesses should work with their area learning centers to tide them over the current budgetary crisis. Such investments would pay off by sustaining centers that will be hard to rebuild if allowed to go dark. Schools should leverage whatever discretionary funds they may have with such partnerships to try to keep at least a part of the centers operating.

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi made this tough decision because the alternatives looked even worse: Cancelling kindergarten? Crippling student transportation services? Those options were nonstarters.

"At the end of the day, these are challenging times," said BOE Chairman Don Horner. "I think we need to revisit the way we do business."

He's right, and the search to save educational dollars that won't so directly devastate student learning needs to accelerate off that starting line.

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