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Candidates debate state of isle education

    Eight candidates for the office of Hawaii lieutenant governor appeared in a forum sponsored by Save Our Schools Hawaii. Shown are Robert Bunda, left, Lynn Finnegan, Jon Riki Karamatsu and Brian Schatz.

Hawaii’s lieutenant governor candidates last night praised the efforts of island charter schools — especially the 16 that avoided Furlough Fridays while absorbing budget cuts — and called for more emphasis on early childhood education, but fell short on coming up with new ways to find money for promising programs.

The two-hour forum at the University of Hawaii’s architecture auditorium was devoted to education, which moderator and UH political science professor Neal Milner called "what many people think is the most important issue facing the state."

The panel, attended by about 90 people, provided a few opportunities for showmanship.

When no one had turned on the auditorium’s air conditioning system by the 6:30 p.m. start, supporters of state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu used the opportunity to pass out Karamatsu hand fans to audience members.

State Sen. Gary Hooser stood to answer his first question, saying he was the first legislator to oppose Furlough Fridays, which resulted in Hawaii having the fewest instructional days in the nation.

"Unfortunately, not enough other people stood up with me," Hooser said.

He said he wants to be "the wing man for education reform, for educational excellence. … When government tells you there’s no money, they’re really telling you it isn’t a priority. We need to make education and keep education a priority."

The six Democrats and two Republicans who attended the forum were asked how they would reduce the huge backlog in repair and maintenance projects at UH and the Department of Education; repair Hawaii’s educational image; retain effective teachers in sometimes troubled communities; and find new sources of revenue for the DOE — or decide which programs to cut.

Hawaii’s selection to receive $75 million in Race to the Top federal funds also popped up periodically as a topic, but state Rep. Lyla Berg cautioned that "there is much we need to do before we can pour money into any educational system."

Like Republican candidate Adrienne King, Berg said she wants to look at "inefficiencies and ineffective polices" in the DOE, and hopes to engage communities in identifying local roadblocks in their schools.

The event included some light political sparring among the group, which included seven current or former legislators, including Brian Schatz and Robert Bunda.

Asked how they would ensure adequate funding for charter schools, several of the candidates said the appropriate formula has been adopted by the Legislature and was held up by Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration.

"It’s the administration that sets the budget for charter schools, not the Department of Education," state Sen. Norman Sakamoto said.

After several other candidates praised charter schools, Republican state Rep. Lynn Finnegan said she was "surprised everyone is so supportive of equal funding for charter schools. It never happens at the state Capitol. … If we were truly supportive of charter schools, we would have equal funding by now."

Finnegan, who had two children attend Voyager charter school, said charter schools provide "a sneak peek into what the DOE can look like."

Early childhood education was another popular theme, but none of the candidates had easy answers about how to provide more money.

The forum was the second on education sponsored by Save our Schools Hawaii and the committee organizing a Hawaii chapter of Parents for Public Schools.

Three candidates with less-visible campaigns did not participate: Democrat Steve Hirakami of the Big Island, Free Energy Party candidate Deborah Spence and nonpartisan candidate Leonard Kama.

The groups will hold their third candidate forum focusing on Hawaii’s gubernatorial candidates from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the UH architecture auditorium.


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