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Candidates give priority to education

By Derrick DePledge

LAST UPDATED: 10:20 p.m. HST, Oct 21, 2010

Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona both want to decentralize the public school administration and empower principals to run their schools like chief executive officers.

The goal should sound familiar to voters: It is virtually identical to the promise of a 2004 state education-reform law that set school spending based on student need, rather than school enrollment, and established school community councils to help frame school policy. Principals were given more flexibility over about 70 percent of school spending and were placed on year-round contracts.

The law also created a principals' academy to help with training and called for performance-based contracts, which have yet to materialize in collective bargaining.

The education- reform law, known as Act 51, has brought more transparency to school spending and has given principals and school community councils more local control, but while student test scores have improved, it is still too early to determine a link to student achievement.


Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona have made improving public education a priority in their campaigns for governor. Education spending accounts for the largest portion of the state's general-fund budget. Voters will decide in November whether to give the governor the power to appoint the statewide school board, which Aiona favors. Abercrombie has taken no position on the issue.


» Decentralize school administration and give principals more discretion over school budgets. Move toward "two-tier" collective bargaining with public-sector labor unions so principals and teachers would have more flexibility to tailor school-based changes.
» Expand leadership academies for principals.
» Set accountability measures to grade schools based on a range of criteria, not just student test scores.
» Invite the schools superintendent into the Cabinet.
» Create a new state Department of Early Childhood to integrate preschool and child care efforts.



» Launch an independent audit of the state Department of Education to identify possible waste and inefficiency.
» Empower principals to be more like chief executives, with greater control over school budgets and staffing, including the ability to hire and fire teachers.
» Ensure more education spending reaches the classroom level.
» Base principal and teacher pay on performance evaluations, including student academic achievement.
» Lift a cap on new charter schools and provide help to parents who home-school their children.

Abercrombie, the Democratic candidate for governor, says a lack of support for the law by Gov. Linda Lingle severely hampered the ability to make changes. He believes true decentralization will take a significant amount of planning and implementation discipline, with the governor as the primary driver.

"There is a good reason why many of the best aspects of Act 51 are contained in my plan -- decentralized school systems work, and large school districts across the country have been moving in this direction for years," Abercrombie said in a statement. "In addition to aspects of Act 51, my plan integrates the new reforms of President Obama's Race to the Top initiatives."

Aiona, the Republican candidate for governor, says the education-reform law has not worked as intended.

"It hasn't," he said. "They haven't achieved what, in theory, they said they were going to achieve. And we're back at the same place."

Abercrombie and Aiona have made improving public education a priority in their campaigns for governor. The governor does not have direct control over the state Department of Education, which is overseen by a state schools superintendent and a statewide school board, but can restrict state spending.

BOTH CANDIDATES would prefer to have the power to hire and fire the schools superintendent, but state lawmakers declined Lingle's request to put that question on the ballot for voters in November. Instead, voters will be asked whether the statewide school board should continue to be elected or whether members should be appointed by the governor.

Abercrombie initially opposed the ballot question because he disagreed with the appointment process crafted by the state Legislature. But Lingle vetoed the bill establishing the appointment process, which means lawmakers will have to devise a new one next session if voters choose an appointed school board. Abercrombie has since declined to take a stand on the ballot question and has said he would work with whatever voters decide.

Aiona supports the measure as a step, however imperfect, toward greater accountability.

Lingle made education reform a priority in her first term as governor, but her proposal to split the state DOE into local school districts with locally elected boards was rejected by the Legislature. The issue dominated her first few years in office and ultimately led majority Democrats to adopt the 2004 education-reform law as an alternative. But it was an example of the limits on a governor's ability to reshape education policy without cooperation from educators, lawmakers and public-sector labor unions.

Abercrombie said he would invite Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi into his Cabinet as a sign of inclusion, even though he would not have any real power over her decisions. He said he would also collaborate with Democrats in the Legislature, educators and union leaders, a departure from what he described as the gridlock of the past eight years under the Republican Lingle.

Abercrombie thinks opening the lines of communication will help him advance his decentralization plans, which he acknowledges are similar to the education-reform law passed six years ago.

"The reason the Lingle-Aiona administration was unable to implement Act 51 had nothing to do with the merits of the act and everything to do with the fact that the Lingle-Aiona administration wanted to pursue a different course of educational reform on its own, like the unsuccessful pursuit of multiple school boards and an audit of the DOE," he said.

Abercrombie would also create a new state Department of Early Childhood with Cabinet-level leadership. He thinks it would put the state near the forefront of early childhood services in the nation and would produce long-term savings and economic benefits. The new department would reorganize state services now dispersed among multiple departments and programs for families and children.

His campaign has not put a price tag on the new department, but has said it is contingent on the availability of resources. His campaign has suggested a department could evolve from an Early Learning Council already approved by the Legislature.

Aiona, by comparison, wants an independent financial and management audit of the DOE to identify what he suspects is significant waste in administrative and central planning functions. He said he would use the audit, which would be conducted by an outside expert and could cost $500,000 to $1 million, to help set a course for school improvement.

"The real value is we're going to know exactly how our dollars are being spent," he said. "Right now, we just don't know. And, of course, how are we performing?"

Aiona also wants to give principals control over 90 percent of school spending -- instead of about 70 percent today -- and understands that it could mean principals might have to make school-level decisions on libraries, sports and food service.

"All I know is that if principals had the authority and the flexibility to do as they wanted to do in their schools, it kind of makes sense that it would be run a lot more efficiently," he said.

Aiona would lift a cap on new startup charter schools to promote innovation. State lawmakers have allowed up to three new charter schools for every existing charter school that earns accreditation, but the lieutenant governor thinks that is too restrictive.

Aiona would also base principal and teacher pay on annual performance evaluations, including student academic achievement.

Ideally, Aiona would, as Lingle proposed, break up the department into smaller school districts with local school boards. But he acknowledges that the proposal is unrealistic unless majority Democrats drop their opposition or the composition of the Legislature changes.

MATAYOSHI said one of the barriers to education reform in the past was that the department did not always finish what it started. She said the department does not need any further studies or audits and should follow through with the outline in the state's winning application for $75 million in federal Race to the Top grants.

"Personally, I think we're very well aware of what the issues are in the department in terms of management," she said. "We need to just do the doing and the fixing."

Several educators and lawmakers say Abercrombie has not explained in sufficient detail what "true decentralization" means and how it will be different from the education-reform law already in place. Aiona's push for principals to control 90 percent of school spending, some educators and lawmakers say, is based on a model from Edmonton, Alberta, that has been difficult to replicate and could be impractical for Hawaii's unique statewide school system.

"Would they like more flexibility around the budget? Sure they would," Lei Desha, executive assistant to the Hawaii Government Employees Association's executive director, said of principals. "But the devil is in the details."

The HGEA and the Hawaii State Teachers Association, as part of the state's Race to the Top application, have gingerly embraced the concept of performance-based evaluations that include student achievement as a measurement. But the details of the evaluations -- like the performance-based contracts for principals that were part of the education-reform law -- are subject to negotiation through collective bargaining.

HSTA President Wil Okabe said such evaluations should be based on student academic growth over time and not isolated test scores. "We need to have a good system that allows teachers to demonstrate effectiveness," he said. "And teachers need to be given a fair opportunity to demonstrate skills."

State Rep. Roy Takumi (D, Pearl City-Momilani- Pacific Palisades), chairman of the House Education Committee, said he doubts there is much appetite in the Legislature for a new Department of Early Childhood. He said lawmakers have already put in place an Early Learning Council for preschool and child care issues. He also doubts lawmakers would further relax the cap on new charter schools until more charter schools have shown academic and financial stability.

He said there may be interest among lawmakers for a management audit of the DOE. He said the department is subject to routine financial audits.

Takumi said the candidates for governor should keep their focus on the factors that drive student success: high-quality classroom teachers; effective principals; a curriculum that makes sense; healthy and safe campuses; and parent and community involvement.

"And there is no free and reduced lunch," he said of the commitment to state education spending. "These things cost money."

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