Right now, we can resolve to learn about our BOE candidates and not leave the ballot blank

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—What is good Board of Education governance? How should voters evaluate a Board of Education candidate before casting their votes? Many voters say they don’t know how to answer either question. Fact is, many Hawaii voters ultimately don’t decide who will get their vote in BOE races; just look at the number of blank BOE ballots from the primary (265,312 or 42 percent).

Mari Matsuda and Tara O’Neill say that’s no excuse for not finding out where candidates stand and there is time—though not a lot—before the November 2 general election. Matsuda is a law professor and a proud product of Hawaii public schools, including Manoa Elementary, Stevenson Intermediate, Roosevelt High School, and the William S. Richardson School of Law, where she now teaches. Her forthcoming book is titled The Last Public Place: Essays on Race, Education, and Democracy. Her essay about the future of public education appears in the recent collection of essays, The Value of Hawaii.

Matsuda says she speaks regularly with voters who make it their business to call BOE candidates to ask pointed questions. “I don’t think everybody feels clueless and uninformed,” she says.

O’Neill, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, agrees that while there are those willing to make a concerted effort, the majority of voters seems to want to find a reason to abdicate responsibility for choosing BOE members.

“Getting information out there is an easy problem to fix,” O’Neill says. “We could take that on today. The notion, for example, that we should go to an appointed board because it’s really hard to find information sounds like lazy citizenry and is unfortunate.”

Matsuda is equally disappointed that the heated debate over the proposed State constitutional amendment to revert to an appointed board may be obscuring root education issues. While not categorically opposed to changing how the BOE is configured, she doesn’t see how an appointed board would have a better ability to address those basic issues any better than an elected board.

“People who are pushing for an appointed board are frustrated with the current system and they want to see change and I am sympathetic to the view that we need big changes in business as usual,” Matsuda says. “Unfortunately, making a process change like this will not get at what people really care about: They want to see changes in the schools. They want to see art, music, and PE put back. They want a guarantee that we’ll never see the fiasco of Furlough Fridays again.”

A forum on Thursday was sponsored by the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs to consider the question of an appointed versus an elected board. Former schools superintendent and now principal of St. Louis School, Patricia Hamamoto, was part of the panel. She spoke only about what should be expected from BOE members:

1. Be knowledgeable about the state, the nation, education trends in each and keep updated and informed.

2. Be able to create strategic education policy for 5, 10, and 20 years in the future and to speak about it with one voice.

3. Find those to carry out the policies.

4. Keep everyone accountable to them.

The tougher part is the practical application of those expectations and why Matsuda favors candidates with teaching experience. She also says all BOE members must be regularly spending time in classrooms observing real situations and talking to teachers. She prefers that BOE members have children, and the practical insights parenthood confers, and also choose to keep their children in public schools.

O’Neill isn’t so sure being a parent or an educator is on her personal prerequisite list, but she says it helps. O’Neill has also taught science in public middle and high schools and she’s committed to supporting equitable and socially just learning environments in Hawaii’s public schools. Her research focuses on issues of student access in science education; the roles that power, race, and gender play in how youth participate in learning communities; and the investigation of teacher learning and preparation.

“What does it mean to know education? I don’t think that you necessarily have to have been a public school teacher—although that gives you an understanding of how systems work in schools in a way that nothing else can,” O’Neill explains. “School systems are remarkably complicated places and the communication that has to happen between the Legislature and the DOE and then various schools of the DOE and then within the schools themselves that have nano structures—that’s phenomenally complicated.”

At the minimum, Matsuda wants BOE members who celebrate school successes rarely talked about in the media and who can get really angry about failures and then be ready to make change.

“As a parent, I want someone who is going to fight for these schools,” Matsuda says. “We’re in a crisis situation. We’re facing a teaching shortage. Our teachers are underpaid, under-trained, and under-prepared for their jobs. We have very good teachers out there but they’re not being supported.”

Also on Matsuda’s list is someone who will take her phone calls and who has “a spark,” who knows that the way things are right now is not okay.

O’Neill is cautious about that last part.

“Having gone to a few of these forums and in listening to some of the folks running, I kind of want to ask them why are you even running if you don’t think anything good can happen and nothing can change?” O’Neill says. “First and foremost, I need someone who believes in our public schools.”

O’Neill expands that thought: BOE members should not just believe in things designed to fit their personal ideologies but in structures that are useful to the broader spectrum of students.

Neither Matsuda nor O’Neill has any sympathy for the amount of time it takes from a BOE member’s life to provide functional, good governance. That’s what members sign up for by standing for office. It’s part the price of bringing Hawaii’s schools into a rich and fruitful era, substantially augmenting our future pool of human capital at all levels, for all businesses including agriculture. 

In saying we want a thriving economy, the words evaporate on the wind. The sooner we stop looking for an external fix and look instead to the potential behind our children’s faces, the sooner we stop dancing around how much time and money we need to invest in auditing the DOE, changing the ethos of the schools themselves, attracting and keeping highly qualified, specialized teachers and offering an affordable society in which they can live. That’s when we’ll know we’re approaching the Hawaii so many of us say we want. But right now, we can resolve not to leave the BOE ballot blank. We can make the effort to find out about the candidates. We can vote.

The full interview with Mari Matsuda and Tara O’Neill is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.