Tackle schools' unique hurdles


POSTED: Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Embattled by Furlough Friday furor, a jab by the federal education secretary and national humiliation, Hawaii's school system must find a way to rebound. More important, it should devise a method of keeping up with other schools across the country in the years ahead despite circumstances that will remain uniquely difficult.

Much of the problem with Hawaii's schools derives from the fact that it is the only statewide system and derives its revenue from the state income and excise taxes. Elsewhere in the country, schools are run by counties with revenue primarily from county property taxes, with help from the states.

One consequence of that difference is that the Hawaii State Teachers Association lines up with other public employee unions in adversarial labor negotiations with the state. Another is that important aspects of school policies emanate from labor contracts.

For example, labor contracts in Hawaii determine the number of school days in a year and instructional minutes. In other states, the number of instructional hours per year or minimum school days and hours per day are set by law or regulation. Clearly, those decisions should be made as public policy rather than terms of a union contract.

Before the furloughs, Hawaii's high school instructional time per year totaled 771 hours. Only four states — California, Arizona, New Jersey and Utah — had fewer — 720 hours. With the furloughs, Hawaii's total could fall into last place alone.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that instructional time in public schools should increase, and he scolded Hawaii for its “;step in the wrong direction.”; The right direction is demonstrated by the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, which has engaged in a pilot program that resulted in an addition of 300 hours to the curricula of 26 schools in Massachusetts.

In a case study, the center explained how it added to the curricula of two K-8 schools in Cambridge while staying within the limit of $1,300 a year per pupil in additional state funding.

“;Part of the challenge the teachers union and the district face was the desire to negotiate an agreement that compensated teachers fairly while also allowing for the staffing flexibility needed to implement the schools' redesign plans faithfully,”; the center observed. “;This meant that teachers needed to have the option to work expanded hours and, at the same time, volunteers, partners and others may be needed to staff some programs.”;

The goal is enhanced by neighborhood involvement that has become natural at local school districts across the country. Having rejected Gov. Linda Lingle's attempt to create local districts, the state should find other methods to improve Hawaii's schools by bringing community goals to the forefront.