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Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Hawaii Governor's School Proposal Surprises Many

Hawaii Governor's School Proposal Surprises Many

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A proposal by Gov. Benjamin J. Cayetano to grant two new schools in Hawaii the freedom to design their own curricula, manage their own budgets, and even eliminate collective bargaining has caught educators and legislators off guard and left many asking for details.

The governor, a Democrat who was re-elected to a second term in November, unveiled the "New Century Schools" program last month in his State of the State Address. He said the program would allow schools to "experiment, innovate, and try new ideas without fear of failure."

While some key players in the state--notably, the Hawaii State Teachers Association--have been cool to the governor's proposal, others say the plan is an encouraging sign that the state is interested in allowing schools more flexibility.

"I've been a pretty strong advocate of empowering schools," said Sen. David Ige, a Democrat and the chairman of the Senate committee on education and technology. "Existing collective bargaining contracts are very stifling."

Danielle Lum, a spokeswoman for the HSTA, said that while exempting schools from collective bargaining has never been suggested in Hawaii, the union--an affiliate of the National Education Association--was willing to consider the plan.

"We're going to make sure that what ultimately comes out of that bill will be the best for teachers, students, and the education system," she said.

She noted that some schools in the state's single-district system already can negotiate their own contracts and that the union has been trying to use collective bargaining to improve schools.

During the last negotiation, for example, the school year was lengthened by seven days.

From the Ground Up

If approved by the legislature, Mr. Cayetano's proposal would allow the governor to issue an executive order to make a school part of the program. The proposal calls for two schools that are still under construction to test the program. Kapolei Middle School and Kapolei High School--both on Hawaii's most heavily populated island, Oahu--will serve students in a fast-growing suburban area outside Honolulu.

The New Century Schools program resembles a 4-year-old law that allows existing public schools to become "student centered" schools--what most people know as charter schools. While the statute allows 25 such schools, only two are currently operating.

If passed, the New Century Schools program would apply only to schools that have yet to open, however. Much like charter schools, they would be run by local governing boards that included parents and community members.

Sen. Ige said he saw the proposal as "complementary" to the law on student-centered schools. The governor's initiative might actually spur more schools to become student-centered schools, the lawmaker added.

More schools haven't taken that step, Mr. Ige said, because of animosity between the student-centered schools and the Hawaii Department of Education, primarily over funding.

But that relationship is beginning to improve, he said, under the leadership of Paul G. LeMahieu, who became the state superintendent last September.

"He definitely is more open and supportive," Mr. Ige said.

Donna Estomago, the principal of Lanikai Elementary School--one of the two student-centered schools--agreed. She added that she believes the governor's new plan is a confirmation of her school's "pioneering efforts."

"I take it as a sign of hope," she said. "If leadership can talk about being out of that box that we've been in, maybe what we're doing is making some sense."

More Information Needed

Still, some ask whether it's wise to bring about local school decisionmaking through executive order, as the governor's plan does.

"For anyone choosing school and community-based management, it needs to be school-generated instead of having it decided for them," said Greg Knudsen, an education department spokesman.

Annette Nishikawa, who will be the principal of Kapolei Middle School when it opens this summer, said the governor's announcement came as a complete surprise.

"I read the bill, but I still don't know what the details are," she said. She said she hoped some of her questions would be answered at a public forum on the governor's proposal that was planned for early this week.

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 12,16

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