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Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as Turning the Tide

Turning the Tide

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It's the centralized structure of Hawaii's education system that is often blamed for any shortcomings, particularly low achievement.

The result, Lingle argues, would be increased community and parent involvement and more consideration of teachers' concerns and ideas.

But opponents of such a setup say that decentralization doesn't make sense for a school system with 189,000 students. Hawaii falls at number nine in a comparison of the nation's largest school districts, but among states, Hawaii ranks 40th in student population.

Hawaii also differs from other states in that all school funding--other than federal dollars--comes out of the state's general fund, allowing per-pupil spending to stay fairly equal from school to school.

That is in sharp contrast, for example, to New Hampshire, where 90 percent of the money for education comes from local property taxes--a school financing system that was ruled unconstitutional by that state's supreme court last year because of the disparities it creates between districts.

Carl Takamura, the executive director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, defends the centralized system, saying, "If we didn't do it this way, the neighbor islands would really hurt."

Gov. Cayetano, who opposes decentralization, says, "We don't want to become a state of haves and have-nots."

Even Lingle's plan would keep funding coming from the state, but some observers say having locally elected school boards without any taxing authority would never work.

Despite the frustrations people have with the education department, there are benefits to having one statewide district, says Tom Barlow, the director of the center for teaching and learning assistance at PREL.

Innovations that might remain isolated in most states can quickly reach the far corners of Hawaii, Barlow says. In fact, Hawaii's schools are more technologically advanced than those in some other states, with every school already connected to the Internet, thanks to a push from the state legislature.

Takamura, of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, is one of many in the state who say decentralization should be taking place in other ways, by giving schools and parents more authority to make decisions.

The state's school- and community-based management, or SCBM, structure has been in place since 1989, and almost 90 percent of the schools have implemented it to varying degrees. One of the most obvious examples of this shift has been an increase in the number of schools that operate year round. Seventy-two schools now follow modified schedules.

Schools also have been given more control over financial decisions and the flexibility to move money between programs, says Arthur Kaneshiro, the director of the education department's school-improvement and community-leadership group.

In 1995, WestEd, a regional education laboratory in San Francisco, evaluated nine SCBM schools and found some promising results, such as improved collaboration between teachers and growing confidence in the schools among parents.

But Susan St. Aubin, the president of the Hawaii pta, said that from her vantage point, decentralized school management is not working well. Most schools, she says, are still "principal-run, controlled, and driven."

Beyond SCBM, the state also has a 4-year-old charter school law, which allows up to 25 schools that are referred to in the state as "student centered schools." It's a conversion-only law, meaning that only existing public schools can become student-centered schools. But only two schools have taken advantage of the law, backing up charter school advocates' conclusions that the state's law is among the weakest in the nation. Even Kaneshiro says the legislation was "shortsighted and does not give the flexibility that was hoped for."

Other schools have not taken the step "because they know we are in pain," says Donna Estomago, the principal of Lanikai Elementary School in Kailua, a student-centered school on the eastern side of Oahu. "This has been the most painful professional experience of my whole life."

She talks about testy discussions over funding and a lack of interest from state officials.

"I just want to make sure we're getting what we're supposed to get," she says.

Wearing a Hawaiian shirt--appropriate business attire in the Aloha State--and no shoes, Superintendent LeMahieu appears to have gotten comfortable quickly with his new assignment.

A basket overflowing with leis, the traditional Hawaiian necklaces made of various flowers, shells, or nuts that are given as a sign of welcome, rests on his conference table and has been filled three times, he says.

Policymakers and education leaders in the state voice almost unanimous support for LeMahieu's appointment and sense of optimism about his ability to lead the school system.

Policymakers and education leaders in the state voice almost unanimous support for LeMahieu's appointment and a sense of optimism about his ability to lead the school system. Respected for his work on standards and accountability, LeMahieu most recently served as the director of the Delaware Education Research and Development Center at the University of Delaware in Newark. He also worked on strategic planning and evaluation in the Pittsburgh public schools for 11 years.

While not born in Hawaii, he spent much of his childhood here, and has worked as an education consultant in the state. In fact, he says he's in the perfect position of being familiar with the people and the culture of the state but free from any political connections that someone from within the department would have.

Enthusiasm over his arrival waned a bit, however, once negotiations over his moving expenses hit the local newspapers. Because the state had never hired a superintendent from outside Hawaii--much less from the East Coast--the school board had never had to cover relocation costs, which climb to nearly $30,000 when furniture and belongings have to be shipped across the Pacific.

Teachers, who repeatedly had been hearing about the education department's money problems and were preoccupied with needs at their own schools, didn't take the news well.

"They were saying, 'We've got shortages, and we've got to pay you more?'" says Lewis, the teacher from Waianae.

The situation illustrates in many ways what sets Hawaii--as an island state--apart from the rest of the country. Simply because of the distance between the state's eight major islands, costs multiply quickly.

For example, St. Aubin, the state PTA president, can't attend an evening parent meeting at a school on another island without getting a hotel room because the latest flights back to Oahu leave before the meetings end.

Sensing that parents, teachers, and others feel distant from the school system, LeMahieu's first move as state chief was to call for a systemwide "needs assessment" that will involve a broad range of people. The end product, due in January, will be a strategic plan and a "mountain of provocative stuff for the board to dive into," he says.

While not an original approach, it's one that LeMahieu believes will draw people closer to the department and make them feel part of the process.

LaMahieu has also taken a stab at breaking a tradition that most observers view as just another example of cronyism in state government. Instead of replacing the top 21 administrators in the system with "his" people, as past appointees have done, he has asked all of them to remain on an interim basis.

The positions will then be posted, and committees made up of principals, parents, and other key people will have a chance to influence his hiring decisions, he says.

Special education problems also await the superintendent. The education department and the state health department are operating under a consent decree stemming from a 1994 class action against the governor over mental-health services.

In the case, Felix v. Cayetano, the U.S. District Court in Hawaii found that the state had underidentified children with mental-health needs and had very limited means of serving them. The state now has less than two years to implement what is known as the Felix Plan, which includes such requirements as "community children's councils"-- groups made up of parents and service providers that give support to families and feedback about services--and "care coordinators," who act as case managers for children with more complex needs.

A recent report from the court monitor said that while progress has been made, "there are areas within the department of education where the commitment to full implementation of all the agreed-on requirements and orders of the court for each student continues to be perceived as resistance by many of the stakeholders."

At the time the case was filed, about 12,000 children were receiving special education services. Now, close to 21,000 students receive those services, and about 16,000 of those are included in regular classrooms for at least part of the school day. Eighty-three children have been placed in programs out of state, a far more expensive solution for Hawaii than it would be for the state's mainland counterparts.

Whoever wins the Nov. 3 gubernatorial election will be stepping in at a time when several issues affecting the schools are converging at once.

The state is still falling far short of recruiting the number of special education teachers it needs to meet the demand. About 400 new teachers certified in special education are needed next school year. Last year, the University of Hawaii graduated only 38.

As a result, regular classroom teachers are feeling overloaded by the inclusion of special education students.

"My nights were consumed with doing [individual education plans] and documentation. Your class suffers," says Susan Chinen, a former special education teacher at Nanakuli High and Intermediate School who is now a guidance counselor.

One of the priorities of the HSTA, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, has been hiring clerical workers to relieve special education teachers of routine paperwork. But no money has been allocated to meet the request.

While such problems are not unique to Hawaii, the state probably was less prepared than others to handle it, LeMahieu says.

"The biggest problem is that the system hasn't gotten serious about this until now," the new superintendent says.

Other officials have blamed the legislature for not appropriating enough money to address the problem, while state lawmakers, as one put it, "don't want to just pour money into a deep black hole."

LeMahieu's proposal is to fully implement the Felix Plan in one complex--meaning a high school and its feeder schools--and to ask the court to lift the consent decree for that complex. Those schools could then be used as an example to others in the district.

"People have no sense of what success looks like," he says. "There's a huge amount of confusion over what is required of us."

Eric A. Seitz, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, said that while he's willing to give LeMahieu a chance, he thinks the new school chief's proposal may be "too little, too late."

"We don't have the luxury of pulling back at this point," Seitz says, adding that even before the 2000 deadline, the court may decide that the department is not up to the task and turn control of the program over to a receiver--an entity that would run the state's program for children with mental-health needs.

The consent decree has also grabbed the attention of gubernatorial hopeful Lingle, who says that, if elected, she would conduct a management and financial audit of all special education programs and services.

Lingle's other campaign promises, such as class-size reduction, combined with some teachers' feelings about Cayetano, were enough to keep the teachers' union from endorsing the Democratic incumbent at the same time it announced its choices in every other race. Though late last month, the union's board of directors announced that it will back Cayetano.

Dissatisfaction with the governor among teachers can be traced to last year, when they were within hours of going on strike over pay and other issues.

"There are a lot of emotions involved," says Karen Ginoza, the HSTA's new president. "The governor became the target of our anger."

Still, a lot of educators give Cayetano credit for sparing the education budget from some of the deep cuts that hit other departments.

Teachers walked away from their contract negotiations with a 17 percent raise--which includes seven days added to the school calendar--while raises for other state employees were not honored.

Cayetano's second-term priorities would be to add more computers to the schools and to build more accountability into the system, an area in which LeMahieu specializes.

Whoever wins the Nov. 3 election will, like LeMahieu, be stepping in at a time when several issues affecting the schools are converging at once. But it's the consent decree that one state official believes will be the true test for the Hawaii system.

"This court order, despite the threatening nature of it, is probably exactly what is needed at this point in time to jar us from our complacency," says Linda Colburn, who was hired as a manager in the governor's office to get the health department and the education department to work more closely together. "This remedy can only strengthen the whole system."

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Pages 28-33

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