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School yard fight.

Education experts, businesspeople and politicians have all hustled onto the field of school reform, eager to make changes in the state's public schools. At times, however, they appear to be playing entirely different games. And, as they kick around their various reform proposals, is anybody watching from the stands?

Mike McCartney has a theory about public education reform, but it is not one that zealots will want to hear. Democrat McCartney chairs the Senate Education Committee, and he has been watching with interest the latest developments in Hawaii's public education reform movement. These include the recommendations of a task force examining who's really in charge of public education, as well as a separate plan to decentralize the top-heavy state Department of Education. Both proposals have provoked commentary from the education community, but McCartney is not sure if anyone else is paying attention. As the 1992 legislative session wears on, says McCartney, "More people are calling my office about auto insurance reform than to say, 'Fix the schools.'"

McCartney thinks that in the islands, as on the mainland, economic pressures are diverting the public's attention from school reform. But there may be another reason for the apparent lack of general enthusiasm: the level of public interest may be in inverse proportion to the number of current suggestions for fixing the education system. In the first two months of this year alone, readers of Honolulu's daily newspapers were introduced to a welter of ideas. They include:

* an op-ed piece by Roderick McPhee, president of the elite private institution Punahou School, offering several pointed comments on the public schools that provoked sometimes outraged responses for the next several weeks;

* a full-page advertisement detailing the 15 preliminary recommendations of the Task Force on Educational Governance, a group created by the 1991 Legislature and charged with exploring the education system's tangled web of overlapping authorities;

* coverage of the task force recommendations and of Project Ke Au Hou ("A New Era"), a plan from the state Department of Education to decentralize the agency and bring resources closer to the schools;

* a full-page editorial, complete with diagrams, in the Sunday Star-Bulletin & Advertiser, announcing the Advertiser editors' own plan for revamping the leadership structure of the education system.

The public may also be losing interest because, as earnest as the various proposals have been, it is not easily understandable how some suggested changes to the system--such as the task force's proposal to abolish the state Board of Education--will solve the problem that is at the basis of the school reform movement: the need to drastically improve student learning and achievement.

According to many business-people, this problem is a critical one. "We as business leaders are absolutely unanimous in our conclusion that the school system is simply not turning out students who are prepared for the twenty-first century," says Larry Vogel, the former president of Duty Free Shoppers Group Ltd. and the current chairman of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, which has made improving the public schools its sole issue. "We are seeing students coming out who can't write or speak well, and their technical skills are just not what they should be either. That's a deep concern to us as businesspeople, because we have to do remediation work with these people. And it's of more importance to us as citizens of Hawaii, because we're concerned about where the state is going."

DISUNITY OF PURPOSE. The recent activities in education reform provide a variety of opportunities for a skeptical, if not cynical, view of the process. Lieutenant Governor Benjamin Cayetano, for example, has won praise for his work as chairman of the Task Force on Educational Governance. But some observers wonder whether his keen interest masks an ulterior motive: the need to heighten his visibility in preparation for a 1994 run for governor.

And there are other examples. The cornerstone of the state's education reform effort is a 1989 legislative mandate known as school/community-based management (SCBM), a concept intended to bring control of education down to the schools and their surrounding communities, where experts say it belongs. But although the Legislature required all 238 public schools to adopt the program eventually, as of the end of February only 83 have made or are making the transition. The reason for the slow pace, critics say, is that the state Department of Education has not provided enough resources to the schools for them to do so.

Equally perplexing is the fact that the various reformers seem at times to be working against, rather than with, each other. The most glaring example of this has been the insistence by Cayetano, who chairs the governance task force, that his group proceed with its review of the school system without considering the restructuring recommendations in Project Ke Au Hou, which is expected to get under way by September 1993.

"The superintendent (of schools), who is leading Project Ke Au Hou, is constrained to operate within the existing framework of laws, jurisdiction and accountability," says Cayetano. "The task force approached this from a more theoretical perspective. When I was selected chairman, I said I wanted all of us to approach education reform as if there were no sacred cows. To allow Operation Ke Au Hou to affect our recommendations is to say we must operate within the existing framework, and that's not my idea of bringing about reform."

Cayetano's clean-slate philosophy is understandable, but so is the public confusion that results from comparing the different sets of recommendations. "Project Ke Au Hou is proposing to do away with the seven school districts and set up nine educational service areas, while the task force is looking at going from one elected state school board to four elected county boards," says Drake Beil, president of the management consulting firm Solutions Inc. and a frequent consultant to the public schools. "Why not set up each district having its own board? There are some real good recommendations in each of the components. But unless these programs are integrated, it's going to be hard for them to have the results they want."

The flurry of suggestions has led to strong opposition from some quarters, which appears to be linked almost as much to turf protection as to the lofty, stated goals of the various participants that improving public education is tops on their lists of priorities. Among those issuing counterattacks to some proposals have been the chairman of the state Board of Education, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents teachers, and the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents school administrators. Says Carl Takamura, executive director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable's Action for Excellence education program, "Everybody's trying to fight to keep what they have."

Board of Education Chairman Mitsugi Nakashima dislikes the task force recommendation that the statewide board be abolished and replaced with county boards, saying that it "turns the system upside down without a good rationale for it." HSTA president Sharon Mahoe says her union supports many of the task force's proposals. But the HSTA and the HGEA strongly oppose a recommendation that would give local school-community based management groups the power to hire and fire teachers and principals. According to Gervacio Buenconsejo, principal of Mililani Waena Elementary School and president of HGEA's Unit 6, the union's school administrators' arm, "This is not about unionism. It's about school improvement. That's the whole intent of SCBM--not hiring and firing."

MOMENTUM OR CHAOS? Given the multiple layers of control in the public education system, the opportunities for power struggles are great. The state Board of Education, an elected body, sets policies for the Department of Education, but also has constitutional power to involve itself in management of the system, by working with the state schools superintendent. Decisions on the board's education budget are made first by the governor's Department of Budget and Finance, and then by the Legislature, which can require additional programs. The education department and the Department of Accounting and General Services must jointly agree on priorities for school capital improvements, which can make getting simple repairs to schools a bureaucratic nightmare. Furthermore, state law also allows the governor unrestricted power to siphon off funds from the education budget throughout the year, to keep a balanced state budget.

Collective bargaining agreements with the education unions further complicate the picture. Says Charles Woodland, regional manager for Chevron USA Products Co. and a member of the governance task force, "The system is complex, and there are no clear lines of authority or accountability."

These criss-crossing lines of power in the public education system may be one reason why the authors of recent reform proposals have had trouble developing a unified proposal for change: Faced with any massive renovation, it's often hard to know where to begin. In fact, Democratic Representative Rod Tam, the House education committee chair who helped write the legislation that created the governance task force, is one more critic convinced the group has missed the point in its examination of who's on first.

"When you talk about governance, the real issue is who holds the purse strings," says Tam. "In this case, it's the Legislature and the governor. The task force is not really addressing that. It is disappointing. If we focus mainly on the Board of Education make-up, we're not going to succeed."

Not everyone is dismayed by the recent multiplicity of reform proposals and their findings. "It is my belief that Project Ke Au Hou will adjust to whatever task force recommendations prevail," says state Superintendent of Schools Charles Toguchi. "I don't think anything is going to derail the movement to reform and restructure. All the players involved have good intentions--they have the interests of the students in mind. Where we've bogged down is in discussions on how to deal with the different logistical changes. But all of us should look at this as an opportunity rather than a crisis. Change occurs when people are focused on the need for change."

Vogel thinks that part of the current frustration can be linked to the magnitude of the undertaking. "If the system is going to really undergo the major reform that it needs, even if everyone is 100 percent gung ho and going in the same direction, it will take years. But that is not something to deter people. I have had to spend a lot of time explaining that to some of my colleagues who want instant change."

Nonetheless, there appears to be a real sense of urgency among reformists that if notable progress is not made this year, the effort will suffer dramatically. "People are anxious for something to happen, and they look to the leadership of the state to provide that action," says Vogel, who has urged Governor John Waihee to take an active role in leading the reform charge. "If the Legislature and the administration are not going to take responsibility and run with that ball, I think there is going to be enormous frustration and anger."

Vogel's dire predictions may well come to pass. The governance task force has called for a special legislative session to pass measures relating to its 15 recommendations, with the hope of getting any necessary constitutional amendments on the ballot this fall. But in an election year, when legislators want to appear responsive to all their constituents, the idea of a special session to discuss one issue lacks broad appeal. Says Tam, who adds that he himself is not opposed to the plan, "It would put us on the hot seat."

Tam's counterpart in the Senate is also uncertain about the success of education reform in 1992. McCartney thinks that having clear-cut reform measures by the end of the session would be ideal, in part because it would put the education department in a better position to begin contract negotiation talks with the education unions this summer. He also believes the Legislature should play the role of bringing the different sides and different suggestions together. "Ultimately it's going to be the Legislature that will be held accountable," says McCartney. "We need to unify the debate. If we can redefine and clarify everybody's role in education, that will be a solid first step."

Unfortunately, a sufficient number of McCartney's colleagues may not share his views. "The level of enthusiasm has diminished since the last quarter," says McCartney, gloomily. "I have a big question mark about whether or not momentum for reform can be achieved."
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Title Annotation:businessmen, politicians and educators get involved in public school reform
Author:Hooper, Susan
Publication:Hawaii Business
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:2068
Previous Article:Seize the day.
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