Let teachers vote again


POSTED: Sunday, October 25, 2009

Hawaii's school system has been boxed in by a teachers labor contract with potentially catastrophic legal, learning and political ramifications. Teacher furloughs instead of ordinary pay reductions to meet state constitutional budget requirements have produced outrage. Teachers should be allowed to vote to amend the contract to meet education needs.

The contract calls for 17 furloughs, all but three on days of instruction to children, for the current school year and 17 for the next. Teachers retain their current hourly pay, but their reduction of 34 workdays results in a wage reduction of 8 percent.

We urged earlier this year that the Lingle administration give priority to education in determining which areas of government should be most spared by the current budget crisis. The administration instead subjected all areas of state government to the same budgetary goals. The implications of the furloughs for teachers were not fully appreciated when the contract was ratified.

Attorneys for parents challenging the furloughs in court express justifiable concern that children are being deprived of adequate education because of the days off. They point to a survey by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finding that all teacher furloughs initiated in 25 states are on non-instructional days.

However, Hawaii is the only state comprising a single school district and receiving revenue from the state income tax. More than 14,500 school districts elsewhere in the nation are operated mostly at the county level, with revenue from property taxes, which are more adjustable than income taxes.

Any comparison between Hawaii's school system and other systems is greatly diminished by those differences. The lawyers, labor contract negotiators on both sides and now U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan fail to take them into account. Duncan warns that federal grants will “;reward states that are leading the way in reform and making education a priority.”; U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie had approached Duncan for funding to restore furlough days.

For the time being, U.S. District Judge David Ezra has refused to keep schools open on designated furlough Fridays to avoid chaos that “;would do more harm than good”; to schoolchildren, and has scheduled to hear further arguments on Nov. 5, a date that should give impetus to restore school days.

Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said last week that most teachers probably would not have voted for the contract if they had to work the same amount for less pay. But teachers individually have told the Star-Bulletin's Susan Essoyan that they would have preferred ordinary pay reductions to furloughs.

As long as the contract requires excessive furlough days, the education of Hawaii's children will be threatened. Teachers should be given an opportunity to amend the labor contract to allow a combination of furloughs on non-school days and hourly wage reductions. The administration then should consider sources such as the Hurricane Relief Fund to ease the sacrifice.