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Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Randall Roth dissects Hawaii's failed Department of Education
By Selected News Articles @ 12:41 PM :: 12815 Views :: Education K-12

In the lead up to the 50th Anniversary Statehood Conference, Broken Trust co-author Randall Roth dissects the DoE and the historical roots of its boiling dysfunction.  If Hawaii is going to abandon the land-development-based economy and enter the information age, the DoE and BoE must be demolished.

Hawaii's schools: A bureaucratic maze  - Star-Bulletin

The governance structure of Hawaii's public-education system is unlike that of any other state. This would not be cause for concern if our students were thriving, but they are not.


In every other state, individual boards govern an average of six schools, and a statewide body provides oversight. In Hawaii, a single board is responsible for 259 schools and for oversight.

No board can deal effectively with the diverse needs of 259 schools. And being accountable to oneself is the same as being accountable to no one.

Lack of accountability extends throughout the management ranks. No state education system, other than Hawaii, has unionized management. Try to imagine the managers of any other enterprise demanding near-absolute job security and salaries unrelated to performance or outcomes.

Yet another accountability quirk is that the Legislature decides how much money to appropriate and regularly mandates how some of the money must be spent (known as categorical spending and line-item budgeting); and then the governor selectively decides whether to release money that the Legislature has appropriated.

When each of three parties has a hand on the steering wheel, each can blame the others for missing a hoped-for destination. Or, as a former schools superintendent once put it, "When everyone is in control, no one is in control."


In 2004, the Legislature "reinvented" education, but five years later the DOE is still the most centralized, top-down school system in America.

All this is a serious indictment of leadership. Someone ought to be held accountable.

But in Hawaii's unique system, the buck stops nowhere.


Essay -- Public Education in Hawaii: Past, Present & Future

by Randall Roth

(Excerpted from page 39-45, Roth dissects the failure of school reform efforts.  The Advertiser, unions, DoE bureaucracy all played major roles defeating Republican and Democrat reform efforts.)

...In past years, the DOE demonstrated an ability to make any new idea fail (SCBMs and charter schools are recent examples).  Following Lingle‘s 2003 State of the State address in which she said that the system was "broken", large signs had appeared on the walls of the DOE/BOE‘s main office building proclaiming, "We are NOT broken".  The people who cheered at the sight of those signs are the same ones who would be making the thousands of little decisions—unless local school boards become part of the equation.

"There is a long history of the DOE and BOE promising a decentralization of the system, but they have never done it." -- Laura Theilen

"Without local boards the DOE/BOE will find a way to sabotage the effort. This is, after all, what happened to SCBMs and the charter schools." -- Mary Ann Raywid

The education establishment—particularly union officials and the DOE/BOE—were sharply critical of these proposals, with one notable exception: they liked the weighted student formula (WSF). For WSF to work properly, however, administrators need sophisticated accounting systems and a culture of accountability, neither of which were currently in place, according to Ouchi and Cooper:

―WSF requires that each principal receive reliable and stable financial forecasts and budget figures. … We cannot see how WSF could be successfully implemented by the present DOE central office staff organization. The DOE staff presented us with significantly different cost figures every few days during our inquiry. If they did this within the framework of WSF, the result would be chaos in the schools.

Polls indicated widespread public support for the panel‘s proposals. When asked, ―Would you favor or oppose making school principals accountable for the progress of their students?, 80% were in favor, 14% were opposed, and 6% were unsure. When asked, ―Would you favor or oppose allowing schools to control the spending of at least ninety cents per dollar of money spent on public education?, 75% were in favor, 13% were opposed, and 12% were unsure. Finally, when asked, ―Would you favor or oppose giving Hawaii residents the right to vote on whether to create locally elected school boards?, 74% were in favor, 17% were opposed, and 9% were unsure.

Union officials accused the panel members and their expert advisers of bashing Hawaii‘s students and teachers, and of stirring up the public needlessly. They said the system had a bad reputation only because people were always complaining about it. The Honolulu Advertiser seemed to join hands with the education establishment, asserting in an editorial ―many states have looked admiringly at Hawaii‘s statewide, centralized, standardized system.  The Advertiser also portrayed in a negative way the public conversation that the blue-ribbon panel‘s decentralization plan had started: "It‘s hard to open a car door around here without banging into someone complaining about our public schools."

The real problem, according to the Advertiser and members of the education establishment, was the public‘s failure to support the tax increases needed to fund education properly. They also ridiculed the notion that local school boards would result in higher levels of student achievement. Instead of saving money, local boards would ―swell the very bureaucracy the panel wants to eliminate, according to them.

In a meeting with the Advertiser‘s editorial board, it quickly was apparent that its members were viewing local school boards (as) the only major piece of the proposed package of changes.  The blue-ribbon panel‘s advisers explained that the core issue was actually accountability, which required a shift of authority from the DOE to the schools. They added, though, that it would be irresponsible to put huge sums of money into the hands of individual principals without also providing support and oversight at a level that was neither too close (where conflict of interests and micro-management could be problems) nor too far (such as at the state level).

They also explained that new local boards were the only reliable way to break up the DOE, and that this was necessary because of the DOE history of sabotaging reform measures such as SCBM and charter schools. The advisers explained that the seven new school boards would hire from the existing DOE those individual administrators who would be needed to provide support and oversight to the schools; and that those new boards would form a hui to provide the relatively few administrative services that could best be provided on a system-wide basis. When all that hiring was over, the remaining thousand or so DOE administrators would be given the opportunity to return to the classroom. Some of those administrators would not like either option, and that would be unfortunate, but the important issue was the best interests of the children, and not the happiness of central administrators.

Whether the Advertiser board did not understand any of this, or simply did not believe it, their editorial voice continued to portray local school boards as the central idea—as an end in itself rather than a means to or mere ingredient in a decentralization recipe. After portraying local school boards as a self-contained plan to solve all the system‘s ills, they expressed incredulity that expanding the number of entities involved with education would improve accountability: "How would adding seven or more locally elected school boards lessen the diffusion of responsibility?"

The battle during the 2004 legislative session was highly charged, but the end was never in doubt: The Legislature was determined not to enact the blue-ribbon panel‘s proposals … the Governor was determined not to sign whatever ―fake reform the Legislature would pass in lieu of the panel‘s proposals for ―real reform … and the Legislature was certain to override the Governor‘s veto. That‘s what the experts predicted, and that‘s what happened. The only complication was that Lingle exercised what she called a "soft veto", which included the offer of a compromise:

"The bill [produced by the Legislature] mainly protects the status quo, and in one case it makes matters much worse by increasing bureaucracy and reducing accountability. … I am exercising what I call a soft veto.‘ … Because we still have one week left in the regular session of 2004, the executive and legislative branches have time to come together to craft an education bill that will bring about meaningful education reform. …"

These changes are:

  • Give principals control over 70 percent of their operating budgets initially, but phase-in a plan that would allow them eventually to control 90 percent of funds.  At first glance it may not appear there is much difference between giving principals 70 percent versus 90 percent of the money. But it will mean a world of difference in the classroom. That is because at 70 percent most of the spending is already predetermined since it goes to salaries and related items over which the principal has little or no control. It is only when principals are given authority for 90 percent of more of the funds at their schools that they truly gain the financial flexibility they need to make meaningful improvements.
  • Empower principals, set standard for their performance, and hold them accountable. In business, in education, and in every social organization, leadership makes the difference. Individual teachers also make a difference. But it is the principals who can inspire, motivate, and lead their schools by example.
  • Give charter schools their fair share of funding, for facilities as well as for operations, so they can provide instruction that is culturally appropriate for their communities. Charter schools have demonstrated that they can produce successful, self-confident students, even in the face of tremendous obstacles created by the Department of Education. Such schools are especially important for Hawaiian students, who suffer greatly under the Department of Education‘s one-size-fits-all system.
  • Instead of launching the weighted student formula‘ in the 2006-07 school year, start this sensible funding plan … earlier.
  • Make the school community councils advisory in nature. That way, councils can offer their recommendations to principals without complicating the decision-making process or confusing who the public should hold accountable.

"Education reform is not about us – it is about the children. ... If the Legislature makes the ‗five easy fixes‘ listed above, we will have a much better bill that will really advance the cause of student achievement through education reform. … I am recommending these five revisions on behalf of people all across our State who have watched many previous attempts to fix our schools and who should not settle for less than real education reform this time. While far from perfect, this modified legislation would move us ahead."

The Legislature chose not to make any of these ―five easy changes. The new law, the grandly named Reinventing Education Act of 2004 (a.k.a. Act 51), called for more math textbooks, smaller class sizes in the lower grades, a two-tiered kindergarten, centralization of the school calendar, student-activities coordinators at every school, training and rewards for teachers and principals, weighted student formula (WSF) to allocate money to the individual schools, replacement of School Community-Based Management Councils (SCBMs) with School Community Councils (SCCs), and acquisition of new information technology, among miscellaneous other items.

Lingle criticized Act 51 as "business as usual--an assortment of feel-good provisions that did not address the core problem, which was the existing governance structure". She pointed out that only one of the changes had actually required legislation, which meant that Act 51 was another example of the Legislature trying to do the DOE/BOE‘s job. She was not the only political leader to view Act 51 as "fake reform".  Former Congressman Ed Case said it clearly and powerfully:

"Act 51 was an attempt to head off public demand for education reform by doing the minimum necessary to appear to be delivering reform without actually doing so. That was compounded through the implementation and administration of the law by a system that didn‘t believe in it to start with."

Update on Act 51

As of this date, no principal has entered into a performance contract. After five years zero progress has been made toward implementation. It is not clear whether the DOE is trying to sabotage the performance-contract initiative, or that its collective hands are tied by existing union contracts. The principals union says it would be illegal for the DOE to force any individual principal to sign a performance contract, because that it is a matter subject to collective bargaining. For whatever reason, the DOE has not pushed the issue.

Performance contracts are more than just nice things to have. They are critically important if we are serious about finally doing something to raise the levels of student achievement. As noted above, ―How do you hold accountable a principal whose compensation, benefits, working conditions, and very job cannot be based on student achievement or improvement at that principal‘s school?

Also in 2009, the DOE continues to rely on a ―horse and buggy information system, despite publicly acknowledging that it cannot support even existing needs. Echoing the State Auditor and Professors Ouchi and Cooper, the Hawaii Business Roundtable has noted that good decisions start with reliable information, something that the DOE often lacks:

"The DOE needs good information systems to manage its resources, including financial, technical and human resources. .... The hoped for outcome is that the DOE will be able to provide the public, legislature and the department‘s managers and leaders, with the data to make good decisions based on timely information, on allocation and utilization of resources, and report on progress towards its goals."

The State Auditor also has identified ―systemic shortcomings in implementing Act 51, and noted that the DOE‘s financial systems are ―inadequate to provide principals with information needed to effectively manage their multi-million dollar budgets.  The report‘s bottom line: "Unless the department can provide competent guidance, it is unrealistic to expect schools to develop effective strategic plans and related performance-based improvement processes."

The DOE acknowledges an inability to conduct regular financial audits of the schools, and its chief financial officer expresses frustration over the DOE‘s antiquated systems.

"[W]e have great people, but not so good systems. … I cannot tell you how frustrating it is that I cannot give you the information you requested … and even more frustrating that requests that [Superintendent Hamamoto] sometimes makes for information cannot be fulfilled either."

One knowledgeable observer believes that the DOE is not trying to keep the public in the dark. According to him, "it‘s much worse than that".  The truth, according to him, is that they have only a vague notion of what it costs to educate a student in a particular school, or how much of the operating budget actually gets to the classroom as opposed to being consumed by the bureaucracy.  In other words, the DOE itself is in the dark. It‘s not a matter of bad people intending to do a bad job; instead, it‘s the predictable consequences of a governance system that lacks accountability.

In 2009, the State Auditor issued a scathing report on the DOE‘s procurement practices involving hundreds of millions in facilities money. She decried the underlying ―culture that allowed those practices not just to occur but to continue unabated for years:

"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."

In past years, the DOE periodically claimed to lack the money needed for soap, paper towels, and toilet paper, not to mention textbooks that are not obsolete.216 And now the system‘s chief financial officer and other senior members of the DOE‘s leadership team admit that they lack basic managerial information about how $2.7 billion is spent. This brings to mind Albert Einstein‘s definition of insanity: ―doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Changing the status quo will necessarily involve a shift of power. The parties who currently wield that power—primarily union officials and elected officials who enjoy union support—are not going to give up that power simply because it‘s the "right thing to do".  As XXXX has said, "The people with power will not give it up unless they get something in return—there will have to be a negotiation of some kind."

If you are troubled by what you have read in this essay, start talking about it with others. Contact elected officials, including state representatives and senators, BOE members, and anyone else who sooner or later has to face the voters, and let them all know what it is that troubles you. Ask them why so much in the existing system is based on the concerns of the adults rather than the needs of the children. Ask them exactly what they are doing to make the system student-centered rather than system-centered. Show them the data and respectfully demand to know why our children are not faring better.

Don‘t kid yourself. Change will not be easy. As Walter Heen once said, "Educational centralization is a mountain that defies Sisyphus."

Hawaii‘s highly centralized system has concentrated enormous amounts of power in the hands of a relative few, and they are determined to keep it. They have demonstrated time and again an awesome ability to prevent meaningful reform.  That will begin to change only when instead of saying "shame on them," we start saying "shame on us."

It‘s time to say "no more", and to mean it.


LINK: To full 45 page analysis: 

LINK: to SB Essay:

RELATED: Randall Roth: In Hawaii Education, The Buck Stops Nowhere


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