Weigh tax cuts against
need to improve schools


A study by an accounting firm calculates that the state should spend $278 million more a year to fund public education.

WHILE a stronger state economy has spurred lawmakers and Governor Lingle to propose a round of tax cuts, a preliminary report says a $278 million annual increase is needed to fund public education adequately.

Though schools have generally been spared deeper budget cuts than other state agencies through Hawaii's lean revenue years, financial demands haven't diminished, and will surely grow -- something state leaders should weigh if they are to hold to their professed commitment to improve education.

Current funding claims include teachers whose contracts expire in June and who are seeking better pay, supported by the Department of Education, which knows it cannot attract enough staff, much less the cream of the crop, with salaries that lag behind the national average.

About $460 million in building repairs and maintenance left undone for lack of money have become more acute as evident when a ceiling collapsed at a 51-year-old Kailua school earlier this month. Many facilities lack sufficient infrastructure and equipment, not only for student comfort like air conditioning, but for such needs as electrical outlets for computers, and basics, such as textbooks and desks.

Even smaller funding programs, such as school lunches, are falling short. Having depleted a surplus previously used to buffer fluctuating food costs, the DOE is now asking for $10.6 million a year to pay for lunches or it might have to raise the price to students from $1 to $1.50. The governor has recommended just $5 million with the puzzling notion that the program should be self-sufficient, according to budget director Georgina Kawamura.

Meanwhile, new proposals for early-childhood education, which promises to better prepare children for the classroom, and more charter schools, which increase options for learning environments, will all come with price tags. In addition, the Bush administration is preparing expanded requirements for the federal No Child Left Behind law that undoubtedly will boost local costs.

The report commissioned by the Board of Education as part of its Fiscal Accountability Project analyzed the public school system and identified areas needing improvement to come up with its figures, the Star-Bulletin's Dan Martin reported last week. The draft study says $159 million more should be spent in elementary schools, $35.2 million at middle schools, $58.9 million for high schools and $24.6 million for charter and combined schools.

A $278 million funding increase is daunting. However, having restructured public education last year, state leaders should continue to build on that foundation. Both legislators and the governor should not step away from the battle, especially when it appears there's some spare change in their pockets.

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