Despite the stakes for public education and the attention given to the issue by Gov. Linda Lingle, none of the candidates for governor has made the structure of the state Board of Education a significant part of their education platforms.
Voters could reshape the school board in November by giving the governor the authority to appoint members.
The state constitutional amendment could fundamentally change the statewide school board, which sets education policy and has been elected by voters since 1964.
Lingle unsuccessfully fought for a constitutional amendment giving the governor control over the schools superintendent, believing that authority would make the governor more accountable for education than the ability to appoint the school board. But she also favors an appointed school board.
Lingle, however, vetoed a companion bill on Tuesday that would have reduced the school board from 14 to 10 members and created an advisory council to recommend potential nominees if voters approve an appointed board. The measure was approved by the Legislature to implement an appointed board if the ballot question passes.
Former congressman Neil Abercrombie does not favor the ballot question, since he believes it does not give the governor direct accountability over education. He wants the governor, not the school board, to have the power to hire and fire the state schools superintendent and bring the superintendent into the Cabinet.
Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, Abercrombie’s rival in the Democratic primary, said he would support whatever voters decide. He said the more important issue is for the governor to champion public education regardless of how the school board is selected.
Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the leading Republican contender, supports an appointed school board but believes, like Abercrombie, that the governor should oversee the schools superintendent.
John Carroll, a lawyer and former state lawmaker running in the Republican primary, would do away with the school board entirely.
State lawmakers put the question on the ballot to weigh voter sentiment after years of debate over school governance.
An appointed school board, some lawmakers believe, could function for K-through-12 schools like the appointed University of Hawaii Board of Regents has for higher education. School board members would be appointed by the governor subject to state Senate confirmation.
The existing school board has opposed the switch, arguing that it would concentrate too much power in the governor’s office and make board members partisan and beholden to the governor.
In vetoing the companion bill, Lingle said it would have been better to let the governor screen nominees rather than the advisory council. The advisory council would have been made up of seven members. The governor, the state Senate president and the state House speaker would have each made one appointment to the council, while the Hawaii P-20 Council, an education advocacy group, would have selected two parents, a business or nonprofit community leader, and an educator.
Allowing the Hawaii P-20 Council, which is not elected or statutorily created, to select a majority on the advisory council was also a concern for the governor.
State House and Senate leaders said they may now have to fast-track new legislation implementing an appointed school board next year if voters back the idea in November.
Abercrombie, who has been campaigning for more than a year, said voters do not seem interested in the differences between an appointed or elected school board. He said he would have preferred that the Legislature move to give the governor power over the schools superintendent.
"I’m going to swim in the water I’m in," he said, adding that he would invite the schools superintendent into his Cabinet if elected. "Obviously, I would reach out to the Board of Education and ask for their cooperation."
Abercrombie has proposed fully carrying out the promises of a 2004 state education reform law by decentralizing authority and giving school principals greater control over budget and staff. He said he would take personal responsibility for restoring public confidence in the school system.
"I think it complicates the situation more than clarifies the situation," he said of the ballot question. "In terms of my real focus, which has never been the Board of Education or the superintendent, it’s been the kids, the schools and the teachers."
Hannemann declined to say whether he prefers an appointed or elected school board. He said the decision needs to be made by voters.
"I have always worked to find common ground and solutions for the greater good and if elected governor, that’s the approach I will bring to public education," Hannemann said in a written statement, adding that he was the only one of the three leading candidates to attend a Hawaii public school.
"Over the last eight years, the Lingle-Aiona administration has chosen confrontation over collaboration and failed to wholeheartedly support public education in the state of Hawaii," Hannemann said.
In a previous interview with the Star-Advertiser, Hannemann said the governor could invite the schools superintendent into the Cabinet even if the superintendent is appointed by the school board.
Aiona has called for an independent financial and management audit of the Department of Education. He said he would take the findings from the audit, along with the voters’ decision on an appointed or elected school board, and use it to direct restructuring of the school system.
Aiona believes in breaking up the department into local school districts with local school boards, like Lingle had proposed for several years. But he has not made the idea, which was rejected by the Legislature, a component of his education platform. Instead, like Abercrombie, he has called for empowering principals and ensuring more spending decisions are made at the school level. He also is an advocate for charter schools and home schools as alternatives to traditional public schools.
"It’s a tough question, simply because I think more should have been done, more can be done," Aiona said of the ballot question. "But I have to say, ‘Vote for it.’ I’ll be in favor of it, because I believe at least it’s a step in the right direction."