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Editorial: Budget cuts can’t deprive students

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The state Department of Education budget is riddled with holes that might be papered over by reducing staff in the public schools. Such reductions could be compelled by a proposed cut the DOE faces of $165.6 million total for the next two fiscal years — and its officials are scrambling to find ways to avoid as much of the damage as possible.

The department has come up with a plan it would implement to manage the 10% cut Gov. David Ige has ordered, in order to close the $1.4 billion state budget shortfall projected over each of the next four years of operating revenues. The state Legislature, which convened this week, has an even more dire outlook of a $1.7-$1.8 billion annual deficit.

However, the sharpest focus must be placed on how this fiscal crisis affects some of the state’s most essential beneficiaries of government spending: the children enrolled in public schools. The DOE has set out a needed plan for private-tutoring students who, learning remotely during long pandemic months, have fallen seriously behind.

The hope that everybody shares is that the latest round of federal government coronavirus aid, enacted late last year, will stave off the most painful cuts. In addition, House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said in a Wednesday media call, there is hope of more funds for education sought by newly inaugurated President Joe Biden.

The uncertainty surrounding all of this, however, has left many people feeling anxious, not least the union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, representing the faculty members in Hawaii’s public schools.

The HSTA has raised an objection to the coping strategy presented by the DOE. On Monday, its president, Corey Rosenlee, and the union’s attorney, former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, asserted that language in the pandemic relief bill precludes the proposed cuts.

Whether invoking these sections would suffice as protection against job losses and furloughs is unclear at best. However, there’s at least strength in the argument that education is a government function to be protected as much as possible.

Lawmakers agree with the high premium placed on education but rightly insist on greater transparency from the DOE. State Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the House Finance Committee, said the members question whether about $100 million of the cuts should be coming from funds reserved for the classroom.

The preference, and it’s a rational one, is that central- services personnel, some of whom are trained teachers, could be redirected to classroom service instead. Lawmakers want, and deserve, more detail about how the DOE might spend its regular and relief funds.

The tutoring proposal has become somewhat controversial as well, the union objecting that the relief funds might go toward non-faculty tutoring when many of its teacher positions are at risk. But the $53 million the DOE would use is for students deemed as falling two or more years behind in language arts and math — a population estimated at 25,000.

Reaching out to these kids is an imperative that the existing faculty would be hard-pressed to manage on top of resuming regular classroom duties. It’s hard to argue with the plan for supplemental tutoring, which would be a logical use of relief aid.

Separately, the DOE also has signed with five private educational contractors that schools could hire when unspecified funds become available, creating an “umbrella contract” to speed the procurement process, said department spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.

Simply put, this is a stopgap effort that has merit, if the state is to avoid sacrificing many of its youth to academic failure. The price Hawaii would pay is simply too great.

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