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More must be done to avoid Furlough Fridays


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POSTED: Monday, October 26, 2009

Hawaii's public school system is often described as the most unified in the country, with a unique, single statewide school district that consolidates funding, policy and oversight. But that sense of cohesion is illusory.

In reality, the public schools are ruled by such diverse interests—the Legislature, the governor, the statewide school board, the state Department of Education and three powerful labor unions—that it's easy for any single entity to duck accountability for decisions affecting the public schools, and the 178,000 Hawaii kids who attend them.

Which brings us to Furlough Fridays.

The financial decision to eliminate 17 instructional days this school year and next, giving Hawaii the shortest school year in the nation, has outraged parents and captured the attention of no less than the U.S. secretary of education.

Arne Duncan, in a commentary that coincided with Hawaii's first furlough day, wrote that no other states are cutting so much learning time, despite facing their own financial pressures.

“;It's inconceivable to me that this is the best solution for Hawaii,”; Duncan wrote, going on to explain how federal grants are rewarding districts that extend student learning, not curtail it.

Duncan noted that his department has $5 billion for competitive grants to advance school reform. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund will reward states that are leading the way in reform and making education a priority. The $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund will go to districts that are advancing research-based programs to improve student achievement.

He never said Hawaii would not qualify for the money, but it's pretty obvious that slashing school days does not qualify as innovative.

Rather than dismissing Duncan as just another federal overseer who fails to comprehend the challenges of Hawaii's unique public school system, all the players—the governor, the Legislature, the Board of Education and DOE, the education unions—should heed his concern. They should welcome the impetus to develop a less Draconian response to the state's fiscal crisis than the one unfolding right now on the backs of Hawaii's schoolchildren.

The lost school days are only part of it. Across the state, schools are cutting, cutting, cutting. Music. Art. Challenging classes for gifted students. Tutoring for struggling ones. All the “;extras,”; that innovation the feds are looking to reward and which makes going to school every day something a kid looks forward to, rather than dreads.

So go ahead Hawaii, raid the Hurricane Fund, raid the rainy day fund. It's pouring out there!

Still not enough money?

Some student furloughs may be inevitable, to avoid the teacher layoffs and surging class sizes occurring elsewhere in the United States as school districts cut costs to close their budget gaps.

But rather than going straight for full class days, why not use the professional development days when students already are off campus. If more savings are needed, throw in a few Wednesdays, which are already shortened instructional days on many campuses.

And exert more pressure on the United Public Workers to settle their contracts and accept the same furlough days as the educators, ending the absurd situation that has security guards, custodians and cafeteria workers being paid to work on otherwise empty campuses.

Throughout this budget ordeal, the education powerbrokers have relied on the tried-and-true tactic of putting the ultimate accountability on somebody else. Next up are the taxpayers, as the move intensifies to raise the general excise tax to close the state's budget woes.

But the unions, the politicians and the bureaucrats may have overplayed their hand this time. By going straight for prime instructional days, they have unleashed the power of parents long frustrated by Hawaii's under-performing public school system and now outright fed up.

Cutting 17 school days a year is simply too much. And there is a lot more than federal grant money at stake.