Hawaii teachers face painful vote


POSTED: Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hawaii schoolteachers are being asked today to make sacrifices for their colleagues and students by taking Fridays off without pay to prevent teacher layoffs and overcrowded classrooms. The two-year tentative contract up for vote today by the rank-and-file faculty is sure to create hardships during the next two school years. Financially, it would help improve the state's budget during these difficult economic times—but the cost in lost learning is appalling. Education deserves a higher priority than other budget items.

Federal stimulus money has been less than what is needed to prevent belt-tightening at school districts throughout the country. Some classrooms in Arizona are jammed with nearly 50 students. The average in Los Angeles high school classes is 42.5 students because of layoffs of 8,850 teachers, counselors and administrators last spring.

Nearly all of Georgia's 180 school districts were the first to furlough teachers, responding to that state's withholding of money for salaries and benefits. But those furloughs were only three days, not enough to forestall extensive layoffs.

“;I've been in public education north of three decades, and these are the most sweeping cutbacks I've seen,”; Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, told The New York Times. “;But it would have been worse without the stimulus.”;

In Hawaii's unique statewide district, which has been approved for $129 million in federal money, teachers are being asked to take 17 furlough days for the current school year and 17 for the next. Gov. Linda Lingle has proposed three furlough days a month for other state employees; that issue is in arbitration.

The proposed teacher furloughs would reduce individual wages by 7.9 percent at the same time as teachers' monthly medical insurance premiums rise. Suffocating as the combination of pay reductions and health-insurance increases may be, layoffs would be devastating.

Parents also will need to adjust to furloughs either by staying home on those Fridays or hiring child day care. They already are wondering how to cut their losses and get by through the remainder of the economic abyss. They also will need to be even more involved with their children's learning on nonexistent class days to help students keep up academically.

Whether children lose less by furlough—missing 17 days of schooling during the year—or by layoffs should concern parents. In addition to creating larger classes, experts say that seniority and dysfunctional teacher evaluation systems in the absence of furloughs have been forcing many districts nationally to let go strong teachers rather than the least effective. That certainly would be the case in Hawaii because of union contract provisions.

As for furloughs, Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto said, “;We realize it will impact student learning. There is no way to say it will not.”; She calls the financial situation “;a crisis.”;

However, economic observers are starting to say the national recession is ending. Teachers should view their difficult choice today as dealing with a temporary situation that warrants furloughs rather than layoffs.