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Lee Cataluna

Aiona’s fiscal accountability is not the answer for schools

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Duke Aiona has news for you: Hawaii public schools cost taxpayers a lot more now than they did 30 years ago. He’s proposing an audit to find out why.

Does he really not know why?

Aiona, the Republican front-runner for governor, released a policy agenda on education reform last week. Like Neil Abercrombie, he advocates giving principals more control of their schools’ budgets and new accountability standards for educators. But the foundation of Aiona’s plan is a call for a comprehensive, independent audit. (Independent, perhaps, because of his boss Linda Lingle’s recent beef with state Auditor Marion Higa.)

The media packet put out by Aiona includes a graphic that compares the Department of Education in the 1978-79 school year with the 2008-09 school year. The number of students enrolled is almost the same in both instances, but surprise! The budget is way up.

"While education spending has increased more than 200 percent over the past 30 years, our students continue to rank near the bottom on national standards-based tests," Aiona’s policy paper says.

Yes. And milk costs more now than it did in 1978. So does electricity. The minimum wage in 1978 was $2.65. In 1978, children with disabilities didn’t have the access to education that they do now thanks to the Felix Consent Decree.

In 1978, words like autism and dyslexia weren’t part of everyday language, and there wasn’t the hope or expectation that children of varying abilities could and should be educated. In 1978, crystal meth hadn’t been invented yet. Homelessness was not an epidemic. The naughtiest song on the radio was "Ring My Bell."

The SAT test didn’t have an essay requirement. There were fewer elements to memorize on the periodic table. Without needing an expensive audit, any public school student can tell you that things are more complicated in schools and in life today, and that’s a big reason why classrooms burn through so much more money.

The Hawaii Republican Party holds onto this fundamental belief that misspent money is the one thing wrong with Hawaii public schools. It’s as though they’re sure that somewhere, someone is stealing or stashing all that taxpayer money. That would be the easy answer. If so, fixing the problem would be like patching a leak.

No doubt an audit of the DOE will find things. An audit of any large government entity is going to find problems.

Audits are what politicians propose to show they’re doing something, anything. It’s easier to count money than to track intangibles like a veteran teacher’s facility with simplifying the complex, or a burned-out principal’s stifling indifference.

That classroom dynamic is what Aiona and the other candidates should be investigating, because the problem is that kids aren’t learning enough to compete and succeed in this world. Many go from high school right back into remedial classes so they can take community college courses. Spend more money, spend less money, but get Hawaii students through high school with a solid education, not just a raucous grad party.

Lee Cataluna can be reached at


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