School closures capture attention from across globe


POSTED: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

It is not the kind of publicity Hawaii wants, but the state's decision to shut public schools for 17 Furlough Fridays has made a big media splash.

“;Hawaii's Children, Left Behind,”; declared the headline of a New York Times editorial. At the Washington Post, education columnist Jay Mathews wrote a piece with the scathing title “;Idiocy in Paradise: Hawaii Handles School Budget Cuts Badly.”;

National television networks have spotlighted the story, along with TIME, the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio. And the news has gone global. The Guardian of London and the BBC both covered it. A Chinese-language Web site highlighted “;Hawaii's Budget Cut: No School Fridays.”; And Radio Australia recently interviewed the head of the state Board of Education.

Board Chairman Garrett Toguchi said the news coverage tends to sensationalize the issue, but “;if the negative press encourages our leaders to put education at the top of our priority list, I'm more than happy to accept it.

“;Nobody's happy with having to furlough teachers and have less instructional days,”; Toguchi said. “;But that ignores the economic reality. The economy is not getting any better. So instead of worrying about what we don't have, we need to figure out how we're going to mitigate the continuing negative impacts on the budget next year.”;

Comedian Frank De Lima's catchy calypso song, “;The Furlough Song,”; has been making the rounds on the Internet, setting off laughter as well as head-shaking over the predicament facing Hawaii's families. It can be downloaded at http://www.frankdelima.com.

Written to the tune of “;Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),”; its lilting pidgin refrain, “;Friday come and we gotta stay home,”; alternates with humor and a poignant plea to resolve the problem.

“;It's one day, five days, 10 days off,”; De Lima sings. “;Too many days and the brain gets soft.”;

“;Come, everybody, please start negotiation,”; goes another line. “;We just want to get an education.”;

Part of the reason for the widespread media coverage is that closing schools seems like a drastic measure compared with cutting salaries or laying off teachers and boosting classroom size.

“;Hawaii sends kids home from school”; grabs more attention than “;California squeezes 10 more kids into classrooms,”; said school board member Kim Coco Iwamoto.

She responded to the New York Times editorial with a letter published in the Times on Saturday, saying, “;You get what you pay for.”; She called for greater investment in Hawaii's public schools, citing Census Bureau data showing that a smaller fraction of state and local government expenditures in Hawaii go to public education than the national average.

While the decision to close schools for 17 Fridays this academic year was based on economics—the gaping budget shortfall—some observers suggest the move could have long-term repercussions for Hawaii's economy by discouraging outside investment.

“;We have to take a long hard look at this plan to leave Hawaii's children behind,”; said Carl Varady, an attorney representing students in lawsuits seeking to end Furlough Fridays. “;Why would you want to invest in a place where kids don't have the technical knowledge and training to compete in the 21st century? If our financial situation is bad now, it could get a lot worse.”;

State Rep. Lyla Berg, vice chairwoman of the House Education Committee, says Furlough Fridays have helped crystallize the issue and could be an opportunity to build support for teachers and students.

“;The fact that we have international attention should be a motivator for us,”; said Berg, a former teacher herself and principal in Hawaii's public schools. “;The community is upset, they're angry, but also really hopeful their voice will make an impact on the decision makers' actions. That's what's exciting.”;