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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, January 22, 2000

Holding education to account

WHENEVER somebody in our company asks for more money or resources, our first response is to make the person show how we're making the best possible use of the resources we already have. It's just sound management.

Gov. Ben Cayetano is trying to apply the same standard to education in Hawaii and catching a lot of flak as study after study shows that Hawaii's spending on education ranks low among the states.

"Accountability is the key issue, not money," he insists.

And the governor is absolutely right. It may well make sense to spend more money on education. But to do so without controls that assure we're making the best use of our money -- and holding specific people accountable if we don't -- is throwing good money after bad.

Who is accountable for the quality of education in Hawaii? The governor and Legislature? The Board of Education? The school superintendent and Department of Education bureaucracy? Principals and teachers?

The fact is that none has final responsibility for fixing Hawaii's schools and all are in a position to point fingers at the others when things go wrong.

Cayetano disputes that Hawaii's schools are as under-funded as national studies say. He says the state's new budget format shows the true cost of public education and the University of Hawaii accounts for more than half of the state's general fund spending.

"This is an impressive sum no matter how you cut it," he says. "Criticisms which focus on under-funding detract from the real issue central to improving Hawaii's public schools (and UH): accountability or a lack thereof."

The governor doesn't spell out how to bring accountability to education, but there are two clear places to start: governance of the schools and work rules for DOE employees.

We can't continue to live with a system that gives an elected school board authority to set policy for the schools, but no way to raise money to implement its policy other than to go hat in hand to the governor and Legislature.

Either give the board taxing power and full responsibility for results or get rid of the elected board and place full accountability for the schools with the governor and Legislature.

THE schools also need a lot of attention as the Legislature debates Cayetano's proposals for civil service and collective bargaining reform. Current work rules give unions representing teachers and principals virtual veto power over needed reforms that run counter to their narrow interests. Management has been stripped of its right to manage. Perhaps the most important managers -- school principals -- are in the union.

Like Cayetano, school Superintendent Paul LeMahieu is pushing accountability as the key to improving public education -- simple steps like rewarding excellent teachers and principals and sanctioning those who perform poorly.

But the superintendent is not finding much support in political circles for exempting accountability measures such as more teacher training from collective bargaining. This means useful reform is likely years away -- if ever.

Our teachers and principals make much of their low pay compared to many mainland school districts. But few highly paid mainland teachers are so protected from sanctions for poor performance. Few mainland teachers enjoy work rules that so thwart reforms to hold them accountable for results.

We could probably find money to pay our majority of hard-working and dedicated teachers more like their mainland peers. But first they must submit themselves to the same accountability measures that make the better mainland schools work.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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