A new day in public education?

Analyzing the success of the governor's A New Day in Hawaii plan promise to decentralize Hawaii's public school system.

When Governor Neil Abercrombie revealed his A New Day in Hawaii plan back in 2010, education was touted as one of his top priorities. How well did Abercrombie do in achieving his education goals?

In January, the governor released his “Administration Accomplishments” report, where the successes of the past four years were compiled, including making School Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi a member of his cabinet, along with her deputy. He also aligned the Board of Education (BOE), Department of Education (DOE) and the Office of the Governor by transitioning the BOE from an elected board to an appointed board. All of these things, he said, improved accountability.

His loftier goal in the New Day plan was to decentralize school administration, something that has long been talked about in the islands, particularly when the “Reinventing Education” Act 51 was established in 2004.

Hawaii is the only state in the nation that has a statewide school district, run by the superintendent and overseen by the BOE. It is the ninth largest public school district, with over 180,000 students.

Decentralized control

One of Abercrombie’s first goals in the New Day plan was to give school principals program control and budget decision-making authority. Abercrombie called for principals to be more like CEO’s of their respective schools and to be able to decide where the dollars in their budget would go. He called for a more “committed” approach to the Weighted Student Formula (WSF), which attempts to allocate money to schools based on need.

In an evaluation that was released in June 2013 by the American Institutes for Research, a survey was taken of all 252 public school principals; 210 responded on the success of the WSF program.

Nearly 90 percent of the respondents agreed that they had control over how the dollars in their budgets were spent. However, 70 percent said that they did not have sufficient flexibility in introducing new approaches at their schools, or in trying new instructional programming; only a little over half believed that WSF funds are equitably distributed to schools.

The report also found that, “while principals appreciate the increased level of discretion over dollars the WSF affords them, some stakeholders reported that the effectiveness of this discretion may be limited by the fact that they can change only the quantities of the staff at their school as opposed to modifying the composition of their staff with respect to qualifications through hiring and dismissal.”

So while principals still lack complete control over their staff, most agreed that they had control over their budgets. Did Abercrombie succeed in his goal of decentralizing the DOE?

In a recent independent survey conducted last month by retired DOE principals Darrel Galera and John Sosa, the responses of 160 Hawaii principals showed that there is heavy dissatisfaction with how the DOE is run, including a lack of faith in the leadership of Matayoshi and unhappiness with the top-down DOE management structure.

Nearly 90 percent disagreed that there is a support system for principals from DOE, and 65 percent said they don’t feel they can express their concerns without fear of retaliation.

The implementation of the new teacher evaluation system was shown to have been extremely unpopular among the faculty and staff. One principal wrote, “Staff morale at all levels is suffering. The increased workload is taking its toll. I have never, in my 20 years in the DOE, heard so many people talking about retiring or changing careers. It has been too much, too fast and we are feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated.”

Most called for new leadership, but Matayoshi has been given a new contract (along with a $50,000 increase in salary) by the BOE after her current contract expired on June 30. Her annual salary will now be $200,000.

In the 10 years since Act 51, things have gotten worse Galera told the Star-Advertiser last month. “The school system is more centralized, principals are less empowered and that definitely has an impact on student learning,” he said.

It appears there is still a long way to go in achieving true decentralization when it comes to Hawaii’s public education system.