author On Politics

Richard Borreca

Politicians keep talking,
students keep waiting

The answer to how well the public schools are doing can be found on your car radio. If local morning radio types win a laugh by saying "Don't feel bad, you must be a public school grad," you already how the public perceives the job done by Hawaii's Department of Education.

This year Governor Lingle became the third governor in a row to draw aim at the state's education system. John Waihee and then Ben Cayetano, both with strong political backing from teachers and much of the DOE during their elections, could not budge the bureaucracy and make it change.

The two Democrats failed, not because of an unwillingness to spend political capital but because the DOE, like the Internet, survives any attack. With the responsibility spread among the Legislature, the Board of Education and the executive branch, no one is accountable, the bureaucracy just routes around damage, passes the buck and keeps droning on.

When was the last time you heard a DOE official say "I can do better" instead of "I don't have the money, training, authority, parents or students to do any more."

Back in the days of Waihee, the Hawaii Business Roundtable, needing decently educated workers, paid for Paul Berman, a national school reform expert, to draw up a new plan. The 1988 Berman report set forth a 10-year "Hawaii Plan" heralding a "radical reform of the state's centralized education system." Berman's plan needed a School Based Management Systems (SCBM) which would function almost like local school boards, in a system that sounds like it was the wellspring for Lingle's local school board scheme.

Perhaps, a decade ago, you read campaign fodder that Hawaii had been set "irreversibly toward excellence" as the tone for school reform had been cast. That "excellence" had an ETA around 1999 or 2000, but politician's promises, don't translate into a better system.

As a way to foreshadow the DOE's inability to produce an excellent system, Berman noted "a deep skepticism about the systems intentions and its ability to change."

But it was Democrat Waihee, not Republican Lingle, who in 1989 called for a system where "local school communities would have charge of almost all budgets, setting educational programs and priorities and increased involvement in staffing." Instead, after years of wrangling, SCBM teams would be able to decide whether kids would wear uniforms and little else.

Again Berman prophesied that "only extraordinary steps that go beyond the existing patterns will enable Hawaii to eradicate its pockets of chronically low-achieving schools."

And Waihee in his 1989 State of the State address said "Nowhere is the need for a change of mindset so poignant than in the way we govern our schools." Berman added his own call for "people of Hawaii to debate a new governance system for public education." And again nothing happened.

If there ever is a victory, this is how we will know that Waihee, Cayetano and Lingle were right. One day a law firm in New York, a biotech start-up in Austin and a university admissions officer in Palo Alto will all say "Pick the kid from Hawaii, because that place has the best public schools in the country." Until then, keep listening to the radio.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at


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