View Point

By Mitsugi Nakashima

Friday, April 23, 1999

Giving taxing power
to BOE makes sense

Fiscal autonomy for school boards
is the norm among mainland schools

Senate President Norman Mizuguchi's bold proposal that the Hawaii state Board and Department of Education be granted authority, resources and responsibility for governing Hawaii's public school and library systems should be the beginning of a public exploration of how public education can be improved.

The idea must not be allowed to die because of people's questions, fears or indifference. The concept cries out for engagement, discussion and debate.

Senator Mizuguchi proposed that the Department of Education be made a political subdivision headed by the Board of Education. For fiscal autonomy, the board would control the state's income tax revenues, and have authority to seek additional funding for education through a sales tax of up to 1 percent. The Department of Education would be given all the functions, powers and duties necessary to operate a statewide system of public education.

Although the proposed change seems radical for Hawaii, the concept of fiscal autonomy for both the board and DOE is the common practice in school systems across the nation.

Hawaii is the only state that provides the majority of public school funding through the state general fund, which is controlled by the state Legislature. America's more than 15,000 other local school districts primarily rely on property taxes to fund public schools in their jurisdictions.

It is typical for local school district taxpayers to set property tax rates and raise the level of funding desired to support their public schools. Hawaii's unified school system, operating as a single district under a single Board of Education, ensures the nation's best approach to equity in funding schools, regardless of a school's location across the state or its community's economic conditions or property values.

The Senate's proposal would resolve the recurring issue of who is in control of public education in Hawaii and who is accountable for results.

Thus far, the House of Representatives opposes the idea. Instead, the House leadership says it favors having Board of Education members appointed by the governor instead of elected by the people.

This issue is a red herring, and is diverting attention to unproductive debates. An appointed board would only increase the already centralized power of the governor and further politicize public education, without addressing the fundamental issue of accountability.

One need only consider the multiple problems facing state agencies with governor-appointed directors to realize that holding only one person, the governor, solely accountable is neither the solution nor practical.

The elected Board of Education is empowered by the public to set policy and address the needs of our public schools and libraries. The transfer of funding authority from the Legislature to the BOE would give the board both the authority and the resources necessary to be fully accountable for quality education.

The issue of granting the board taxing authority needs to be fully aired, rather than dismissed with a knee-jerk reaction against "new taxes." The result could be more government efficiency and improved schools and libraries, which does not automatically mean higher taxes.

The senators have initiated discussion of a major proposal to improve Hawaii's public school and library systems. What is needed now is for the people to take up the governance issue, discuss the merits of the concepts in the Senate's proposal, and clearly voice their opinions on what they would and would not support.

The stakes for public education are too great for this issue to be given less than full consideration.

Mitsugi Nakashima is the chairman of the
Hawaii state Board of Education.

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