Hawaii needs to rethink education altogether, participate more in the discussion

Beth-Ann Kozlovich
Members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association gather at the June 30, 2009 Unity Rally. Courtesy Photo

HONOLULU—On Monday, the Hawaii State Teachers Association filed a complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. The teachers union is charging the Governor and the head of the Office of Collective Bargaining with violating the terms of a December 2009 agreement, which would have ended Furlough Fridays for the 2009-2010 school year.  Board of Education Chair Garrett Toguchi says that while he thinks HSTA’s hand wasn’t forced in filing the complaint, the action “was part of their strategy. HSTA is serious about wanting to negotiate instead of take it or leave it.”

Toguchi agrees with the teachers union stance that the Governor did not bargain in good faith. “When one side is only sticking to one proposal and not wanting to move forward, they have a valid complaint,” Toguchi says. He hopes the HLRB will move quickly to resolve the issue so all can focus on next school year. Quickly is a relative term, he cautions, and although he supports HSTA’s action, he doesn’t think the Governor is playing unfairly. “Her heart is in the right place,” he says.

As the 2010 Legislative Session began, the union looked toward lawmakers to arrive at a solution to the standoff. HSTA also said it had hoped all along that had the original plan been completed to settle Furlough Fridays for this school year, lawmakers would have had more time in session to grapple with Furlough Fridays for school year 2010-2011. The original deal approved by the Superintendent, the Board of Education, and HSTA would have tapped $30 million from the rainy day fund to defray the shortfall needed to return the remaining Furlough Fridays to instructional days.

A few measures are still alive in the Legislature, but Toguchi thinks lawmakers won’t do much about Furlough Fridays. “If it was a priority it should have been done already,” Toguchi says.

The real divide is how much of a school’s personnel fit into the essential category. In her offer to use $50 million from the rainy day fund over a two-school-year period, the Governor would have covered only essential teachers. Unimpressed, the teachers union stressed that the $50 million offer would still leave unfunded $19 million of school jobs necessary to the school day. Nevertheless, the Governor is sticking to her rationale that the original $30 million is too much to take from the limited fund just for one school year.

If teachers can market themselves to schools and get paid above a base rate based on merit, Hawaii will attract and retain talented teachers.

Calling the HSTA complaint frivolous and accusing the union of caring more about money than kids, the Governor’s short statement seems to offer little hope that she wants to negotiate. While she and HSTA trade words, Toguchi says the BOE is trying to play the mediator: “We’ve had meetings with the Governor and her staff and have tried to resolve some of our differences and have some of our questions answered.” But he says the BOE hasn’t received as many answers as he would have liked. Publicly, the Governor’s office has said they believe they have satisfactorily answered questions.

Meanwhile, there are a little over three months left in the school year with the twelfth Furlough Friday set for March 5. The polarized situation between the HSTA and the Governor continues—a few lawmakers are also asking the DOE to cut an additional $78 million from the budget. At Wednesday’s late night meeting, the BOE could only agree on $35.5 million of the DOE recommendations, according to Toguchi. Cut from the budget altogether were non-school based programs including the Challenger Center and some alternative learning programs. Many of the programs have seen cuts of 5-10% over the last 2-3 years and Toguchi says that while the BOE is complying with the request to make deeper cuts he also says he’s hopeful they may not materialize.

A concern for many parents, educators, and policy makers is what type of education policy is driving the cuts. Given Hawaii’s less than stellar scores for reading and math—albeit with some notable exceptions and pockets of improvement—it appears Hawaii is moving to a basics-only education. For the moment, Toguchi says yes. At the same time, he says we should be looking beyond immediate triage and reverse engineer where we want to be once the economy improves. That’s the hard part.

Education policy, beyond the chase for pools of money and fiscal management skills, needs leaders with a cutting edge understanding of education. Understanding some of the latest brain research wouldn’t hurt either. While many of the same words are used by educators, parents, lawmakers, and community members, the rhetoric needs to stop and leadership at all levels needs to begin. But are these leaders here?

Toguchi says it’s not uncommon for him to see only a few members of the public attend a BOE meeting. He laments he receives only a few emails at most and sees perhaps a handful of people show up to most hearings on education bills. This has been fairly consistent over his long BOE tenure; he has been on the Board since 1996. Hawaii may not want to hear this, but to affect policy, more people need to make phone calls, send emails and electronic testimony, and get and stay involved.

Taking the long view, Toguchi says he’d like to see Hawaii’s school system move from a seniority to performance-based model. Here, he says, a consumerist attitude should be fostered—in teachers. If teachers can market themselves to schools and get paid above a base rate based on merit, Hawaii will attract and retain talented teachers. It’s not a new argument and the bottom line for everyone to understand, he says, is that we’re going to need not just a bigger slice to fund education but a whole new, and bigger, pie.

The entire interview with Garrett Toguchi was broadcast on February 25. This as well as Part 1 of the conversation on Town Square heard on January 28 are available on the Hawaii Public Radio archive.