Hawaii leaders must lead: End Furlough Fridays now


POSTED: Thursday, December 10, 2009

Time is running out to restore Hawaii public school students' lost school days, making it imperative that Gov. Linda Lingle, key state lawmakers and the teachers' union take the decisive actions that match their public pronouncements.

Since late October, when Furlough Fridays began and the overly harsh impact on public school students and their families became evident, all the key parties have expressed the will and desire to restore as much of the lost class time as possible as quickly as possible.

And yet the clock ticks down.

With a Dec. 31 deadline looming to call a special session of the Legislature to vote on spending $50 million from the state's rainy day fund to restore instructional days, the Hawaii State Teachers Association is balking at giving up teacher-prep time, Lingle staffers are polling individual lawmakers to gauge their support, and other advocates are starting to speak up about preserving their own pet projects.

In this dire economy, there is no shortage of worthy programs desperate for funding. Painful cuts are being imposed, unfair burdens shouldered.

But the guiding principle remains clear: Education, for reasons idealistic and pragmatic, must remain a top state budget priority.

It's almost as if the desire to return students to class that the governor, lawmakers and union officials expressed so fervently last month has dissipated along with the public outcry.

Protests led by parents and students were numerous and well attended the first few Furlough Fridays, but seem to have fizzled lately. A cynic might assume the protesters were played, lulled into complacency by promises of urgent attention to the issue.

A special session still provides the best hope of restoring the lost class time by the time school resumes in early January after the winter break. Waiting until the Legislature's regular session would subject the rainy day raid to committee approval in each chamber, which would, no doubt, further delay action.

Under Lingle's plan, money from the rainy day fund would pay for 12 lost class days, and another 15 would be restored by converting teacher-training days to instructional ones.

Such a raid requires two-thirds approval in the House and the Senate, so there's no point in convening a special session without an apparent consensus ahead of time.

Although legislators prefer that this be considered Lingle's fight, the fact is that they play a powerful role. By failing to signal support for a special session, they will be seen as bowing to the teachers' union, which has been accused of obstruction.

Any failure to restore class time by next semester would reflect a lack of leadership as much as it would reflect a lack of state funding.

Leaving Hawaii's public schools with the shortest school year in the nation should not be considered a viable choice.