Subtracting from Schools


POSTED: Sunday, April 19, 2009

That the state is using federal stimulus money intended for education as a rainy day fund to cover the general budget shortfall seems especially misguided considering that so many consequences of the severe recession trickle down to Hawaii's public schools.

Teachers recognize in their classrooms the economic woes that Gov. Linda Lingle and state legislators are scrambling to solve, as overwhelmed parents who've lost their jobs, lost their homes and feel like they're losing their minds continue to drop off their kids at school every day.

It's fair to expect an increase in the number of kids who eat breakfast and lunch at school, which offers a bargain price even for those who pay full price. And no doubt A+ after-school programs will remain busy, as parents struggling to hold on to their jobs use every last minute of the workday to prove how valuable they are to their employers.

It would not be a surprise even to see a bump in enrollment in schools that typically lose many students to private schools, as that expense becomes discretionary for families caught in the recession's grip.

The point is that although Gov. Lingle clearly is within her authority to use $90 million intended for public education to plug the state's budget deficit - and that just about anybody watching the budget showdown could have predicted the move - she is wasting a huge opportunity by doing so.

Lingle has passed up a rare chance to simultaneously support, reform and improve Hawaii's public schools, at exactly the moment when political will and economic reality could converge to exert pressure on those who have hobbled far-reaching efforts in the past.

For the first time in eight years, there's a real sense that the federal government will provide the money to match its mandates, that a U.S. president will make improving public schools the bedrock of his domestic policy, and that beleaguered educators who are the easy targets of political pundits and budget analysts may regain a sense of their noble mission.

That momentum must be sustained, even in the face of dire economic choices.

The federal stimulus money does not come without strings, which would require the State Department of Education to measure teacher performance, upgrade low-performing schools and track the performance of individual students.

Barack Obama was outspoken during the presidential campaign about his desire for merit pay for public school teachers and principals, and there is no doubt that the recession in Hawaii and the rest of the United States is bringing labor to the table on that issue and a variety of others that were rejected outright in the past.

Indeed, the financial crisis - which may affect Hawaii for years, dependent as it is on tourists' dollars - should have a clarifying effect on the overall debate on education reform.

This state seems ripe for the sort of middle-class taxpayer uprising that ultimately defined the presidential election, as families who have sacrificed for years to scrape up private-school tuition take a hard look at what the public school around the corner has to offer.

Lingle should seize this opportunity to give those families what they seek: schools with sound, articulated curriculums, taught by qualified teachers in comfortable, well-equipped classrooms, on orderly campuses overseen by committed, visionary principals.

To maintain that ideal at high-achieving public schools and to attain it at struggling ones, Hawaii must refocus on the vast middle: regular-education students in regular DOE schools. This is not an attack on special-ed, or charter schools, or any other program that has gained attention or funding over the years, but a simple fact. To sustain progress, the majority of students must move forward.

While the debate in Hawaii historically has revolved around the core issues of funding and accountability, actual reforms have tended to skirt the edges. A charter school here, a school-community based council there.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides an opportunity to change all that, to truly propel public schools forward, with its infusion of cash, confidence and high expectations.

The educators at the front lines of Hawaii's economic crisis deserve full funding, and the parents who helped put Lingle in office must rise up now to demand it.