School & District Management

Report Faults Hawaii’s Statewide School District

By Linda Jacobson — December 10, 2003 3 min read
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Gov. Linda Lingle has a little more ammunition for her bid to break up the nation’s only statewide school district.

According to a new report from her office, the current state education department is too large to manage the kind of weighted student-aid formula that is needed to bring greater equity in education financing to Hawaii.

The financial analysis of the state’s single school system—which was described by the authors as a “frank, unvarnished look at the district’s finances"—said that total spending per student has reached $10,422 per year, but only 49 cents of every dollar is spent in the classroom.

The report, released Nov. 24, was written by two school finance experts working as consultants to the governor: Bruce S. Cooper, an education professor at Fordham University in New York City, and William G. Ouchi, a management professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The Nov. 24 report supports Ms. Lingle’s argument that the 182,800-student Hawaii school system should be decentralized and broken up into local districts with elected boards.

“If Hawaii had local school districts as do the other 49 states, there would be constant pressure to reveal these figures as each of the local districts vies for its share of state funds,” the report said.

Estelle Matthis

Ms. Lingle, a Republican, wants the voters to decide on a new education governance structure in a referendum next year. State schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto and the Hawaii State Teachers Association, however, are opposed to such a plan.

While similar proposals to break up the statewide district have been debated for years, Ms. Lingle stressed decentralization in her 2002 gubernatorial campaign.

A proposal for a new weighted spending formula—which would assign larger dollar amounts to children from low-income families, students in special education, and those still learning English—is gaining popularity among legislators as they prepare for next year’s session.

But if the state education department were to implement such a change, “the result would be chaos in the schools,” according to the report. “The implementation of [a weighted formula] requires a small, manageable central office financial staff that delegates financial decisions to local districts and, through them, to individual schools,” the authors wrote.

Department Responds

Hawaii education department officials, however, quickly countered the consultants’ findings with their own figures, saying that per-pupil costs only come to $8,375. The department’s figure is lower because it does not include building expenses or payments on debts, officials said in a written response.

“It is appropriate for the legislative and executive branches to keep track of such expenses,” their response said. “However, it is not appropriate to include them in per-pupil expenditure figures, because no other state or the national statistics include them in their calculations.”

The governor’s report also said that more than 22 percent of the education budget is spent on the central office, compared with the 3 percent to 6 percent often cited by the agency.

Department officials said that the researchers lumped school-related costs in the central office budget. They added that a “feature of Hawaii’s system is that some school expenses are handled more efficiently when centralized,” such as school utility bills, substitute teachers, student transportation, and food services.

The department also cited Education Week‘s Quality Counts 2003, which stated that 59.5 percent of Hawaii’s total K-12 staff are teachers—the second highest in the nation. The governor’s report, however, said that out of 23,790 department employees, 8,252, or 35 percent are teachers.

Public Forums

State education department spokesman Greg Knudsen said that the department is “receptive” to the idea of the weighted formula, but that a lot of details would have to be worked out.

“But we totally disagree that it needs to be linked to the governance question,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Lingle has been trying to gather input from the public on the proposed new formula and on her plan to have local school boards across the state. In November, her Citizens Achieving Reform in Education committee held 10 community forums across the state.

The 25-member committee will incorporate the public’s comments into a list of recommendations.

The group’s report—which will be used to write proposed legislation—is due to the governor later this month.

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