by Andrew Walden
Grabbing the political high ground on a day union operatives had sought to shape debate as a choice between tax increases and cutbacks, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle this morning announced her intention to propose a constitutional amendment which would transfer control of the State Department of Education from the existing Board of Education and make the DoE into a cabinet-level department headed by an appointed Superintendent. Promisingly, her proposal was immediately endorsed by Rep Neil Abercrombie, the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Speaking to the Honolulu Advertiser as parents rallied at the Capitol to protest furloughs, Lingle pointed out:
"What you have now is a system where no one can be held accountable completely because of the way it's structured."
Abercrombie agreed, telling the Advertiser:
"The problem right now, the challenge, is that nobody is actually accountable in the end. The governor can point to the Legislature and the Board of Education, and it's circular. The governor should appoint the superintendent of education. And the superintendent of education should be in the governor's Cabinet. The governor and the Legislature should take direct responsibility for education, higher and lower, in the state."
Under Lingle's proposal, the next Governor would be responsible to appoint and dismiss the Superintendent of Education as with any other cabinet level appointee. The role left for Hawaii's sadly comical, surgically altered Board of Education is an open question. Home to the nations highest transsexual elected official, other recent BoE candidates have included washed up politicians, and a naked guy with wings endorsed by the Advertiser. A major focus of the BoE's recent work has been protecting dope-smokers on the faculty from being caught. A 1992 commission headed by then-Lt-Governor Ben Cayetano proposed an appointed BoE.
The result of the buck stopping at the governor's desk is that the condition of Hawaii education becomes of intense interest in gubernatorial elections. Dissatisfied voters will have a clear focus for their anger--or their support.
Lingle also expressed second thoughts about her decision to accept the contract settlement presented to her by the DoE and HSTA, telling the Advertiser:
"I rarely second-guess myself but on this one I certainly did. Looking back on it now, I assumed that they would do what was in the best interest of the students, and I don't think they did. I don't think their decision was in the best interest of the students.
"I think it was in the best interest of getting the contract resolved, and we were all focused on that, myself included. But looking back I think it would have been better to stand up and say, 'Well, we just can't settle it this way.'"
But if the Friday furloughs force Hawaii's moribund body politic to solve this 160-year-old problem then Lingle's decision to swallow the poison pill offered up by the DoE/HSTA negotiators may have been worthwhile.
Meanwhile the budget crisis still looms and Senator Will Espero (D-Ewa), advocating a raid on the Hurricane Fund, claims that 13 of 25 Senators have signed a petition calling for a special session. On the House side, Rep Della au Belatti (D-Makiki) reports only eight of 51 representatives signing a similar petition. House Speaker Calvin Say is apparently concerned that the HSTA will benefit at the expense of the HGEA and other government employees' unions. Say today told the Star-Bulletin:
"Going forward, the House will consider solutions to the school furlough issue during the upcoming regular session. Parents and the public, however, should be aware that public education is one of several priorities that will be adversely impacted by the budget crisis. Other state services and employees will suffer because of furloughs and, possibly, layoffs. The Legislature must also consider those state services and employees."
Say's comments belie any quick tax-increase and fund-raid solution for the DoE. With other government employees' jobs in the balance, the Democratic Legislative Caucus may be open to finding money to save them by slicing away at the DoE's failed accounting systems which allow millions of dollars to be given away to crony "professional services" contractors paid to write reports nobody reads.
In an essay this summer Randall Roth cites the State Auditor's 2009 report on DoE procurement:
"Our audit revealed a lack of proper leadership and controls over the department‘s procurement process and a resulting indifference toward procurement compliance … The department lacks corrective or disciplinary procedures for procurement violations, and the Board of Education has not [provided] oversight of procurement. The result is much confusion among employees and dissent within the department over proper procurement policies and procedures. … The office‘s many large-dollar capital projects were commonly procured with minimal planning and oversight. … The department has not maintained effective internal control [and] lacks required monitoring controls over its internal controls.
"The second phase of our audit revealed an organizational culture of disregard for procurement rules …. We encountered numerous instances of department personnel manipulating the professional services selection process and awarding contracts to predetermined consultants. … We discovered several other alarming practices … that appeared to be fraudulent and unethical."
Reforming the DoE's governance has been on the political agenda since the 1962 when Jack Burns ran on a platform promising decentralization of the DoE. It didn't happen, but Randall Roth explains:
"A task force appointed by Governor Burns 35 years ago pointed out that this unusual (divided governance) arrangement makes accountability difficult if not impossible:
“The Legislature has the primary power of budgeting for the Department of Education and, consequently, can influence or mandate Department of Education programs, policies, directions, [and] activities very heavily.
"The Governor exercises this kind of power also with his ability [not to release] funds and the Governor also wields other factors of administrative supremacy that can influence Department of Education operations. The public, therefore, is never sure just who is responsible for a particular decision affecting the Department of Education or who is to be held accountable for its policies.”
As Roth pointed out: "When each of three parties has a hand on the steering wheel, each can blame the others for missing the hoped-for destination. As a former Superintendent once put it, 'When everyone is in control, no one is in control.'”
Placing the DoE under the direct supervision of the next Governor may be the opposite of decentralization, but it is the very essence of accountability. And if a new governor reverses the DoE's institutional hostility to charter schools, the result could be school-by-school charter conversions leading to decentralization of large parts of the system.
RELATED: Furloughs: How Unions and the DoE aim to co-opt protesting parents , Hawaii budget crisis: Adult Supervision vs Team Chaos , Furloughs vs Layoffs: The union no-solution strategy
Randall Roth: In Hawaii Education, The Buck Stops Nowhere , Randall Roth dissects Hawaii's failed Department of Education