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Hawaii Advised To Decentralize Statewide School System

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Hawaii should decentralize its school system into smaller units governed by locally elected school boards, recommends a dramatic reorganization blueprint commissioned by the state's business leaders.

The wide-ranging document also calls for parental choice and a significant expansion of early-childhood programs.

If Hawaii's schools are to be made "second to none," the state must make "a substantial financial investment and a commitment to a long-run program to achieve excellence," argues the report on the plan, "The Hawaii Plan: Educational Excellence for the Pacific Era."

The examination of the state's school system--the only such unitary system in the country--was conducted at a cost of $300,000 by the California-based consulting firm Berman, Weiler Associates at the request of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, a group of business leaders.

The firm's earlier analysis of Minnesota's public education system helped pave the way for the passage of that state's widely hailed open-enrollment law, and last year it recommended sweeping changes for California's public schools in a report commissioned by the California Business Roundtable.

Hawaii's plan, which includes a negative assessment of the current quality of its schools, urges state lawmakers to pass the necessary legislation to set in motion a six-point initiative for improving the schools over the next 10 years.

Plan Called 'a Catalyst'

Although it has been received cautiously by state officials, the blueprint is generating much discussion, they say, and raising hopes that this could be a "pivotal year" for education reform in a state that has lagged in the nationwide movement to upgrade schools.

Several of the study's proposals address issues that the Hawaii Department of Education had already been working on, said Gael Mustapha, a public-information specialist in State Superintendent Charles Toguchi's office. But the plan "has acted as a catalyst to bring these issues to the fore," she noted.

In addition to advocating a shift to a community-centered school system that would reduce the present top-down management, the plan calls for allowing parents to choose the public schools their children will attend "within reasonable constraints that safeguard the public interest in equity."

Additional Proposals

The "Hawaii Plan" further recommends that the state:

Phase in universal early-childhood education for 4- and 5-year-olds. All parents would be able to send their children to public or private preschool programs subsidized by the state on a sliding scale according to family income.

Modernize curriculum and instruction. Schools should "build an infrastructure for using educational technology and for training teachers and administrators so they can create effective learning environments for every student," the report argues.

Strengthen the teaching and administrative professions. Requirements for teachers should be upel10lgraded and they should have more authority in school decisionmaking, it says. Principals should be given more responsibility for school performance and provided with training to upgrade their leadership and professional skills.

Renew the secondary schools. The curriculum should be restructured so that all students master core subjects, the report contends. Students would take a mastery test in the 10th grade, and in the next two years could choose a curriculum for transition to higher education or work.

Renovate school facilities. Old buildings should be upgraded and new ones constructed to meet enrollment growth, population shifts, and modern instructional needs, according to the plan.

Cost Estimates

The report estimates that expenditures for implementing the recommendations would start at approximately $11 million in the first year and level off in the sixth year at $97 million--about 16 percent of current spending for public education. The most expensive reform would be the establishment of early-childhood education, which would reach a cost of some $60 million per year by the 10th year, the report projects.

Because Hawaiian students have consistently performed below the national average on the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the general populace views public education in the state as substandard, most Hawaiians agree that education reform is necessary, said Samuel Lee, vice chairman of the House education committee.

Nevertheless, he predicted, the proposals to reorganize school governance and institute universal preschool education are likely to generate some controversy.

"We do not want to fragment the system," said Mr. Lee. "We want to retain the advantages of centralization while incorporating the benefits of decentralization."

Noting the breadth of the plan's proposals, Mr. Lee observed that "a lot won't turn out exactly as outlined in the report, but I am quite optimistic that there will be some reform."

Echoing this sentiment, Ms. Mustapha noted that the plan "may not necessarily be bought hook, line, and sinker," but it has raised hopes for "a pivotal year in which things really happen in education."

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