Hawaii's schools: A bureaucratic maze


POSTED: Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The governance structure of Hawaii's public-education system is unlike that of any other state. This would not be cause for concern if our students were thriving, but they are not.

Median scores on national exams put Hawaii in the bottom tier of all the states. It's been that way for many years.

Military and business leaders say the reputation of Hawaii's public schools makes it difficult to attract top personnel to the islands.

Labor unions say many Department of Education graduates are unable to pass apprentice exams.

The University of Hawaii says many DOE graduates are not ready to take college-level courses offered at the community colleges. According to placement exams, 79 percent need remediation in math and over half need remediation in reading.

The problem cannot be blamed on funding: Hawaii is 13th-highest among the 50 states in per-pupil operating expenditures, $11,060 versus a national average of $9,666. Hawaii's all-inclusive per-pupil annual expenditure is about $15,500.

It also would be wrong to blame the teachers and principals. The Hawaii Business Roundtable said it well: “;The teachers and administrators who serve our children are for the most part dedicated, talented professionals. These men and women are the solution to our educational challenges, not the problem. The problem is our system.”;

In every other state, individual boards govern an average of six schools, and a statewide body provides oversight. In Hawaii, a single board is responsible for 259 schools and for oversight.

No board can deal effectively with the diverse needs of 259 schools. And being accountable to oneself is the same as being accountable to no one.

Lack of accountability extends throughout the management ranks. No state education system, other than Hawaii, has unionized management. Try to imagine the managers of any other enterprise demanding near-absolute job security and salaries unrelated to performance or outcomes.

Yet another accountability quirk is that the Legislature decides how much money to appropriate and regularly mandates how some of the money must be spent (known as categorical spending and line-item budgeting); and then the governor selectively decides whether to release money that the Legislature has appropriated.

When each of three parties has a hand on the steering wheel, each can blame the others for missing a hoped-for destination. Or, as a former schools superintendent once put it, “;When everyone is in control, no one is in control.”;

Hawaii's DOE has long been the most centralized school system in the nation. Gov. John Burns formed a task force that described this as an unnecessary byproduct of statewide (rather than local) funding:

“;Centralized funding for education need not result in centralized or standardized decision-making. A persuasive case can be made for decentralizing decision-making in various areas because ... the most knowledgeable persons to deal with a problem are oftentimes those closest to the children and the community. Such an approach starts with the role of personnel in the individual school or group of schools, rather than starting at the state office.”;

In his 1962 inaugural address, Burns pledged to decentralize the DOE. But the system remained highly centralized throughout his 12 years in office. Govs. John Waihee, Ben Cayetano and Lingle later tried to decentralize the DOE, but they, too, failed.

In 2004, the Legislature “;reinvented”; education, but five years later the DOE is still the most centralized, top-down school system in America.

All this is a serious indictment of leadership. Someone ought to be held accountable.

But in Hawaii's unique system, the buck stops nowhere.


Randall W. Roth is a professor at the University of Hawaii School of Law. He will speak Friday at the 50th Anniversary of Statehood Commemorative Conference, “;New Horizons for the Next 50 Years.”; His unabridged essay on public education in Hawaii is at