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Spending Disparities Found in Hawaii's Single District

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An analysis of the nation's only statewide school system has found wide disparities in how much money Hawaii spends on individual schools.

Despite the uniform effort of the islands' taxpayers, a report released last week by the state auditor found, per-pupil spending in Hawaii's 234 schools ranges from $3,839 at Keonepoko Elementary School to $9,706 at Maunaloa Elementary.

The report marks the first time that researchers have tracked an entire state's education spending to the school level.

"On its surface, Hawaii is supposed to be the most equitable system in the country--a school reformer's dream," said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor at Fordham University in New York City who conducted the analysis for Auditor Marion M. Higa.

"But even in a state-funded system, there is a fair range in funding between schools," Mr. Cooper said.

Of the $992 million Hawaii spent on its public schools in the 1992-93 school year, the report found, about 60 cents of each dollar made its way to the state's classrooms. That amount corresponds closely with the findings of studies Mr. Cooper has conducted in other states, focusing on a handful of each state's school districts.

"It appears that real differences in costs separate schools in Hawaii," the report says.

While the report did not include any recommendations on new directions for school funding, it did suggest that some schools could work to lower maintenance costs in order to increase classroom aid.

Explaining the Gaps

The report found that local, district, and state administration swallows 30.3 percent of Hawaii's education budget, which is administered entirely by state officials. "Pupil support" consumes 8.6 percent of funds, the report found, and "teacher support" takes 2.2 percent. The remaining 58.9 percent is spent on classroom instruction.

The report's release last week drew considerable attention from the Hawaii media. A Honolulu newspaper published the spending breakdowns for each school--news that observers said irked some parents at schools with relatively small budgets.

State education department officials were busy last week explaining the cost differences.

"Tracking expenditures alone is not sufficient for good fiscal management," Superintendent Herman M. Aizawa, the state's school chief, said.

Teacher salaries, the presence of special-needs students, and differential costs due to special local circumstances all affect the division of funds, state officials said. For example, they said, the high-spending Maunaloa school has relatively high expenses because of its size and remote location.

Mr. Aizawa also disputed the report's suggestion that funneling more money into instruction will increase student achievement.

"Millions of dollars have already been spent on research to establish causal relationships for such factors as class size to student achievement," he said. "Many of these research reports have ended up with conflicting conclusions."

Finally, officials in the state education department rejected the auditor's suggestion that they begin using Mr. Cooper's model as a way of tracking school spending from year to year and as a diagnostic tool for local decisionmaking.

Instead, the Hawaii officials said they will use a financial monitoring system designed by the National Center for Education Statistics, which they said will provide ample data even though it does not categorize spending at the school level.

Officials in the auditor's office argued, however, that educators need to think more about how they are managing public funds and how schools compare across the state.

"The analysis was a first step using some preliminary data. It is useful as a benchmark and starting point," the report says, adding that such knowledge "can be useful in changing, improving, and redesigning public schools and the department of education system."

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