EDITORIAL: Teachers Union’s Bold Reform Plan Deserves Our Attention

Civil Beat Editorial

By The Civil Beat Editorial Board

December 21, 2015

Teachers Union’s Bold Reform Plan Deserves Our Attention
The Hawaii State Teachers Association has offered an ambitious proposal to tackle shortfalls in public schools. Its timely draft bill launches an important conversation.

A plan to increase the GET by 1 percent and generate $750 million a year for public education has legislators, educators and the community talking.

It would be hard to dispute Corey Rosenlee’s argument, even if we were disposed to do so. As the president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association declared recently, “For too long, we have ignored education in Hawaii. Now, finally, we are saying, ‘This must change.’”

A proposal put forth by Rosenlee and the union undoubtedly represents emphatic change. Having prevailed last summer in leadership elections despite the HSTA old guard’s unseemly efforts to hold onto power by whatever means necessary, Rosenlee and his reform-focused leadership team aren’t wasting time in acting on their election mandate.

HSTA is promoting a plan to raise the state general excise tax by 1 percent — a proposal that would generate an anticipated $750 million annually. The funds would go toward an eclectic but significant list of educational needs that have long gone unmet in Hawaii, needs that neither the Department of Education nor the Legislature have any legitimate — as in certain — plans to address.

Take, for instance, classroom air conditioning, a potent metaphor for how Hawaii deals with education needs. Year after year, students and teachers boil in the sweltering heat of the state’s school buildings, the average age of which is well over 65. As Civil Beat has reported, such classroom environments, where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees during the warmer months of the year, significantly affect learning, making it unnecessarily difficult for students to succeed.

Last summer and fall, as temperatures soared and tradewinds stalled, the situation reached a crisis point; parents, students and community leaders bitterly criticized the school system for allowing the situation to languish, year after year.

The state’s response? Over the course of the fall, 400 air conditioners installed in the hottest classrooms, lots of earnest handwringing about the terrible conditions and vague declarations from legislators about addressing the situation in the future.

The problem has been allowed to fester for so long that bringing air conditioning to the more than 200 schools that currently lack it would cost an estimated $1.7 billion. Prior to the modest effort this fall, those classrooms that have had air conditioning often received it through private fundraising rather than through the efforts of the Legislature or the Department of Education.

And that’s too often the problem with public education in Hawaii. Unacceptable conditions persist year in and year out and school leaders and teachers do their best under lousy circumstances. Students choke on the professed good intentions of state lawmakers, who control the funding essential to make a difference, but who, too often, fail to make educational needs a priority.

The air conditioning issue is reflective of Hawaii’s last-in-the-nation ranking in school-related capital improvement funding. As Civil Beat reported last year, the state spends just $294 per student each year on facilities.

Unacceptable conditions persist year in and year out
while students choke on the professed good intentions
of state lawmakers, who control the funding essential
to make a difference, but too often fail to
make educational needs a priority.

The HSTA proposal would make air conditioning a priority, installing it in every Hawaii school over the next five years. Much of the rest of the union’s proposal deals with instructional, staffing and funding-formula issues.

It would try to address the state’s rapidly growing achievement gap between special-education students and their peers. That gap has more than doubled over the past decade in subjects such as mathematics. Educators blame the mushrooming achievement gap largely on the elimination of a weighted funding formula that took into account not just the overall number of students, but also the severity of special-education students’ needs in various areas.

Hawaii struggles to attract and retain special-education teachers, often placing inexperienced teachers in these difficult, demanding roles without the training they need to succeed.

HSTA would cap the caseload of students for special-education teachers using a weighted system determined by a state committee.

It also would cap the number of elementary students in any classroom at 20, and the number of high school students at 26. Likewise, it would cap at three the number of days each school year that students participate in standardized testing.

The legislation that would address these and other reforms is in draft form and hasn’t yet been made public. Until it is, it won’t be possible to judge whether each specific component merits support.

But it should go without saying that cash-strapped public education in Hawaii needs more money and that the items noted above are worthy investments. To provide that funding on a predictable, consistent basis, so that priorities don’t fall in and out of budgets depending on how much revenue materializes from current state taxes, is a concept we support. Dedicating a general excise tax increase to public educational needs offers one concrete way to do that.

Hawaii is alone among states in how it pays for education. Rather than being principally funded, county by county, through property taxes, as on the mainland, Hawaii funds its public education system through annual appropriations in the state budget. That approach puts education funding in competition with all the other needs that the state budget must address.

Hawaii is the only state that funds its public education
system through annual appropriations in the state budget.
That puts schools in competition with all the other
needs a budget must address.

Issues such as air conditioning and special education have borne the brunt of budget reductions in recent years, sometimes being cut significantly to help balance budgets, or falling out of the Department of Education budget entirely; in 2013, it took a last-minute vote by the Board of Education to insert the issue in the department’s request for the 2014 legislative session.

Education chairs in the Senate and House have indicated their interest in giving the matter a fair hearing. Sen. Michelle Kidani already has promised to introduce the legislation; and in comments to Civil Beat, Rep. Roy Takumi threw his support behind a full public vetting of the HSTA proposal.

That only represents the start of what promises to be an arduous legislative journey for the measure. And if the proposal clears the Legislature, winning Gov. David Ige’s support may represent the toughest challenge. In a recent discussion with the Civil Beat Editorial Board, the governor said he’s not interested in new revenue measures until the state completes planned reforms to prevent tax fraud and more effectively collect taxes that are already on the books.

Improving tax collection has been a focal point for Ige in his first year. He said that this year, tougher tax fraud efforts allowed the state to collect $20 million that otherwise would have gone unpaid.

Worthy efforts, to be sure. But a quality educational experience for Hawaii students shouldn’t have to wait until the grownups can address the state’s tax issues. If the governor won’t entertain a tax increase, perhaps he might consider dedicating revenue from improved collections and fraud prevention exclusively to public education.

It’s worth pointing out that the amount the HSTA proposal would generate each year is less than half the amount that Honolulu’s rail project is already over budget. And the Honolulu City Council stands poised to approve the GET extension for the rail project that state legislators already authorized earlier this year.

Students and Hawaii’s public schools should be no less immediate a priority.

While we reserve final judgment on the full HSTA proposal until we see the details, we commend Rosenlee and his fellow teachers union leaders for opening a vital conversation with substantive ideas and a legitimate proposal to pay for them.

If this is to be the legislative session in which we finally stop ignoring public education’s glaring needs, this may well be a strong first step on that path.

About the Author
The Civil Beat Editorial Board
The Civil Beat Editorial Board
The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Bob Ortega, Richard Wiens, Chloe Fox and Todd Simmons. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Contact Opinion Editor Todd Simmons at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 808-377-0247.