Shortchanging Hawaii’s Kids

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - October 28, 2009

School superintendent Pat Hamamoto

As I write, public school parents of special needs students are in court trying to stop the first Furlough Friday. Other parents are pleading with relatives to watch their kids or scanning the papers for Furlough Friday child care programs. Many come up empty, with neither relatives nor programs to fill the Friday void.

I teach a two-and-half-hour class on Friday mornings. A week before the first scheduled furlough day, a single mother asked me if she could bring her children to class. I, old and increasingly oblivious to the needs of parents of school age children, asked, “Why?”

“Next Friday is the first furlough day,” she said. “I don’t have anyone who can watch them. As long as they’re on opposite sides of the room from each other, I think they’ll be quiet.”

Finding child care inconveniences parents; but watching their children lose 17 days of school traumatizes them, causing some to ask a fundamental question: Do the governor, the superintendent of education, the leadership of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the teachers themselves have - as they often so solemnly profess - the best interests of the students at heart?

That’s a hard question for me to entertain. I’ve long been a supporter of Hawaii’s public schools. But who among the people negotiating the HSTA settlement came up with a way to shorten one of the shortest school years in the country into - you’ve got it - the shortest?

I’d give the “furlough plan” my making-the-national-news test. Often Hawaii making the national news makes my chest puff up with pride: when we’re reported in the top tier of the states in the percentage of our citizens with healthcare coverage or when a keiki o ka aina becomes president of the United States or when Kalaupapa’s Father Damien becomes St. Damien.

Think about it. According to this test, not a bad year for Hawaii from November 2008 to November 2009: a president, a saint and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Then think about this one: Hawaii, a state whose students have not fared well on national tests of student achievement, achieves the distinction of having the shortest school year in the nation.

Ow. My chest grows concave.

Others are taking it worse than I. A friend of mine told me that he and his wife intend to leave Hawaii for the Mainland. They have three school-age children, all of whom attend Oahu public schools that do well on those national tests.

“My wife spends a lot of time at school; she’s a very active parent, but she’s furious about these Furlough Fridays,” he says.

As she should be - and as many other parents are as well. Last week Gov. Linda Lingle, School Superintendent Pat Hamamoto and representatives of the school board and HSTA met to discuss a procedure whereby schools could meet more hours on Wednesdays and convert some or all of six waiver and planning days into “readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic” days.

Good idea. What would that procedure entail? Approval by a school’s Community Council, a two-thirds vote of the school’s faculty, approval by a committee of BOE and HSTA members and - finally - approval by full board.

Huh? Who jerry-built this method of dealing with the problem? Why can’t Hamamoto just order it? More important, why didn’t no-compromise Lingle look at raiding a special fund or two? Or why didn’t she, Hamamoto and the union honchos think about this solution before dropping the problem into the laps of parents and children? On its face, 17 Furlough Fridays didn’t make sense; and I think most people knew it.

Oh, I know. One of my readers is thinking, “Come on, muddle-headed liberal. It’s those union guys you like so much. They weren’t thinking about the kids’ education. They were just trying to get three-day weekends for their members - or put pressure on the governor. And you’re playing right into it.”

In this instance, I fear, that reader may be right.

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