Monday, November 09, 2009


Could furlough suits reform a school system almost no one wants fixed?

by Larry Geller

Hawaii’s government has done little to nothing to reverse the cuts that placed us last among all states with only 163 instructional days in the year. The state legislature has declined to meet in a special session to work on the issue. Despite a popular parody song, national and even international focus on the state (our “no school Fridays” were even the subject of an English lesson in China), Governor Linda Lingle remains ideologically opposed to the tax increases that could provide relief, and her Attorney General Mark Bennett holds that two lawsuits challenging the cuts are “without merit.”

In other states, the Attorney General has sued school districts which fail to obey state or federal law. In Hawaii, which has a statewide Department of Education, Bennett is the DOE’s attorney and defends their wrongdoing. This is an obstacle to school reform since Bennett will not prosecute the DOE when it breaks the law.

In other states the Attorney General is the people’s attorney. Today’s news includes this, for example: Illinois Attorney General seeks to intervene in suit over service dog in school (National School Boards Association, 11/9/2009). And yes, the Illinois AG is intervening on the side of the student.

In the absence of state government will to enforce state and federal law, two teams of private attorneys have filed suit in federal court. Dan Nakaso has written a comprehensive article in today’s Advertiser, Hawaii furlough lawsuits could spur sweeping change (11/9/2009). The views of outside attorneys are compelling (Jeff Portnoy is not one of the attorneys filing suit, Carl Varady is head of one of the legal teams):

Jeff Portnoy was the court-appointed special master in the Felix case and said the state's claim of budget problems had no merit then and has no merit today.

"I'm a little tired of the state of Hawaii claiming it has no money and is therefore exempt from federal law that applies to all 50 states," said Portnoy, a Honolulu attorney who also represents The Honolulu Advertiser. "It may be true they have no money, but unless they get the law changed, it is the law. It's clear from the entire Felix lawsuit and the years of litigation that the state's argument that it doesn't have the resources to comply with federal education laws has absolutely no merit and will continue to have no merit. You just have to find the money — now."

Varady included the history of the Felix case in court documents to show "these arguments have been made repeatedly for the past 15 years."

"We have to do something in this state to change education for the better instead of making the same excuses," Varady said. "If you look at our test scores, we're not doing well. How are we going to do better with fewer days? That makes no sense.

Throughout the course of the Felix lawsuit, the DOE, the Department of Health, and the state legislature concentrated on what they had to do to get the federal court off their backs. As a result, when federal oversight finally ended, the state regressed. That the furlough days could even have been instituted without consideration that federal law was being violated is an indication of how far compliance with the law has retreated in local consciousness.

The article indicates that hope is being placed on the legal challenges to improve Hawaii’s troubled system of education. It would be wonderful if that could be achieved with federal lawsuits, but there are counter-arguments. An important one is that the Governor, Linda Lingle, has fought to destroy public education, for example, by breaking up the single school board into as many as seven “baby boards” which would be more subject to political influence. Another is that the state Attorney General focuses on defending DOE wrongdoing instead of prosecuting it.

But perhaps the greatest obstacle to improving public education is the lack of demand for better schools. Since tourism is the prime mover of the economy, followed by service to the vast military installations in the state, there is little incentive to provide any more education than what is sufficient for the fairly low-level jobs that are available in Hawaii. Parents are not pounding on the Governor’s office door to get her to improve the public schools.

The children lose out, of course. Those who excel despite the system and long for careers in science or engineering, for example, have to leave family and homes behind and look for jobs on the Continent.

The lawsuits, to be heard today at the Federal Courthouse, may or may not change the school system. They have placed the problem in a public spotlight, but it will be up to the public and its elected representatives to bring about change. Or not.


No one is mentioning the fact that the private school tradition in Hawaii is rather unique.
Secondly, very few members of the state legislature are effected by anything in the DOE, they don't send their children to public schools. Having lived in other states, I can tell you that politicians with kids in private school do not get elected (unless your name is Kennedy). I have know people to take their kids out of private school and enroll them in the public school so that they can run for office. Here, no one questions the fact that nearly all elected officials have their kids in private schools. And they don't see a problem with that. I know many public school teachers who have their kids at Iolani and punahou. What does that say about the school system when the people who teach there won't send their own children to the public schools? I believe in the importance of public education to an effective democracy. I looked around and found the best public school in my area. And I am one of those parents who are always questioning. Does not make me popular but it keeps the administration alert.

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