The primary election told us all we need to know about why we must pass the constitutional amendment to abolish the elected Board of Education and replace it with one appointed by the governor if we hope to fix our public schools.
Only 42.8 percent of Hawaii’s registered voters turned out for the primary, and 51.1 percent of those left their ballots blank for the Maui BOE seat. In the Oahu at-large contest, where voters could make three choices, 42.6 percent of those voting opportunities were left blank.
Dismal voter participation has always blemished Hawaii’s elected BOE, and it isn’t likely to change.
With little reliable information available on BOE candidates and voters bombarded with information in higher-profile races for president, Congress, governor and mayor, BOE elections will never be able to compete for attention.
A school board elected by so few voters simply isn’t meaningful democracy. Light participation magnifies the influence of special interests, and we risk having our schools run by fringe players, political wannabes and spear-carriers for those who feed off the system.
We’ve seen the result: endless dithering, political infighting and little progress toward improving the performance of our underachieving schools.
An appointed BOE isn’t the answer to all of the problems in the schools, but something has to change and this is our chance to take an important first step.
The governor would be able to make informed choices of candidates who have relevant qualifications to guide the schools. If voters are unhappy with the board’s work, they can hold the governor accountable, a clear line of responsibility we don’t have now.
An appointed school board — which is backed by our last four governors, the former schools superintendent and several former and current members of the elected BOE — would operate much like the Board of Regents the governor appoints to oversee the University of Hawaii.
The regents have had good moments and bad, but generally, they’ve been more qualified than their counterparts on the elected BOE, operated more professionally, avoided the constant political drama and made decisions reasonably expeditiously.
Most importantly, regents have worked with the UH administration on some semblance of rational long-term planning, which is the greatest failing of the elected school board.
Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Harlem Success Academy, a New York charter school that achieves 100 percent academic success with some of the most challenging students, says the education establishment wrongly blames inattentive parents and special-needs kids for failing schools.
"The problem is not the parents, the problem is not the students," she says. "The problem is the system that protects academic failure."
This is an opportunity to get the system pointed in a new direction — and it’s no place to leave the ballot blank, which is counted as a "no" vote.