Restore days, reform schools


POSTED: Friday, April 30, 2010

A whole public school year went by - minus nearly all 17 Furlough Fridays - while bureaucrats, unions and politicians stubbornly bickered and blamed. No one involved should feel satisfied that the Legislature has OK'd $67 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to avoid furlough days next year; instead they should channel their shame into revamping the system that this whole sorry episode has revealed.

The various sides in the dispute over Furlough Fridays in the next school year have come close to agreement, but intransigence by the teachers union threatens to result in a nasty collision. The union needs to make concessions so the state government can tackle reforms that are desperately needed.

The Legislature has approved a bill requiring the school year to consist of at least 180 days, eliminating the possibility of furlough days in 2010-11. Lawmakers have agreed to authorize the $67 million for wages and other expenses for days that otherwise would have been needed because of budget constraints.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association agreed to turn six days reserved for faculty planning into classroom days, reducing the number of days needing financing to 11. They want the amount approved by legislators to pay for teachers and all other personnel on those 11 days.

Gov. Linda Lingle is right in her insistence that only $57.4 million from the hurricane fund be transferred to pay only for teachers and other employees absolutely needed for schools to be open for classes on those days. School employees unnecessary for that function would continue to be subject to Furlough Fridays, just like state government employees in other departments.

Lingle has said she will leave it to the Department of Education to determine which positions are necessary. That would be fairly easy: If a substitute worker is needed to fill in for an employee who has called in sick, that worker obviously is essential. Teachers fall into that category, as substitute teachers stand ready to fill in on short notice.

In lockstep with the union, Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the state Board of Education, insists in the spirit of union solidarity that all employees are necessary for schools to be open. He is supported by other board members who have relied on endorsements by HSTA for their election.

That would likely change if voters in November approve a state constitutional amendment allowing the governor to appoint school board members, which could be important in reducing the union's influence over the board, depending, of course, on the governor's relationship with the union. The authority to select the schools superintendent remains with the board.

Systemic changes are needed in the school system, from decentralizing decision-making, to lifting the cap on the number of innovative charter schools as encouraged by the Obama administration but opposed by interim Superintendent Kathryn S. Matayoshi. The powerful influences that sway Hawaii's decisions need to stop protecting the status quo and instead, be open to real improvements for student learning. Attention must now shift from teachers' wages to educational reform.