Most politicians will tell you that trying to reform Hawaii’s Department of Education is like invading Russia in winter – a colossal mistake.
But once again, voters are being asked to put on their marching boots, this time by dumping the elected Board of Education. The governor, with some unspecified help from a selection commission, would then pick the board members.
Essentially this would put Hawaii back where it started as a new state, with a school board appointed by the governor and a hope for a new educational system.
In 1964 Hawaii’s system changed to an elected board. Since then voters twice rejected going back to an appointed board.
But that was before the current elected board, with the help of Gov. Linda Lingle, former superintendent of education Pat Hamamoto and the teachers’ union shut the schools to save money.
While Furlough Fridays critics could say, "We’ll remember in November," the situation is sufficiently fuzzy to make it unclear exactly what would change with an appointed board.
Still it was voter outrage over Furlough Fridays that drove the Legislature to again propose fixing responsibility for the schools with the governor.
"It is symbolic of the utter frustration of people in the Capitol to try to shape this system," says Sen. Clayton Hee.
What is significant is that Hee, a former public school teacher who once hired Garrett Toguchi, BOE chairman, as his administrative assistant, this year gave up trying to reform the DOE.
Hee and Toguchi remain friends, although, as Hee puts it, "I don’t wear his glasses, so I don’t have the opportunity to see things as he does."
As leader of a school board described by educational observers as "badly fractured and divided," Toguchi remains the elected board’s biggest booster.
"Improving education is not as simple as changing how the board is composed," Toguchi says.
An unusual group of lobbyists as you can have, former Govs. George Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano are asking voters to pick the appointed board, noting that every governor for 50 years has tried to reform Hawaii schools.
"Make no mistake about it, powerful interests will fight to protect the status quo," they said.
"The system fought back against effective reform and the governor did not have the authority to overcome an entrenched bureaucracy," the trio warned in a statement earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the three looking to replace Lingle – Neil Abercrombie, Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona and Mufi Hannemann – have all been less than definitive in what they say voters should do.
Both Democrats and the lone Republican all say they would "support the superintendent" and try to work with the board.
If the current problem with education is that there is no responsible party to hold accountable, then voters will have to provide their own answer when asked to amend the state Constitution.
Richard Borreca writes on politics every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.