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One Big School System

02/21/02 12:00AM By John McClaughry

Hawaii has 190,000 students in 273 public schools. There are no county or local school boards. The system is run from Oahu by the elected State Board of Education.

The state pays all education bills. The state controls and actually performs school repairs. In 2001 there was a $640 million dollar school repair and maintenance backlog.

The legislature fixes the number of teachers to be hired, and where they will teach. Teachers are state government employees. They all belong to one of three labor unions. Their pay is set by statewide collective bargaining agreements.

Because their salary, benefits and job security depend on a contract ratified by the legislature, it is absolutely vital that the unions control the legislature. And they do. Every bill introduced to decentralize power over public schools has been summarily killed. Charter school conversion legislation was passed, but it required the charter schools to keep the former school's union staff and their union contracts. The parents who pushed for the charter soon found that the union contract told them how to run their school.

Honolulu Advertiser columnist Cliff Slater says "the single advantage of a statewide system is to the school unions' leadership. They would have less control with a countywide system, even less with one that is districtwide, and little or none from an individual charter-school based system. That is why the teachers union, the principals union, and the United Public Workers union fight local control all the time."

Dr. Libby Oshiyama, now president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools and a 26-year veteran of working with at-risk kids in Hawaii, says "The school system is dehumanizing and insulting to children, parents, teachers and principals. Hawaii has the most hidebound, calcified and controlling system in the United States."

Hawaii's story ought to be of considerable interest to Vermonters. Unless Act 60 is thrown overboard soon, its coming fiscal crash will necessarily lead to full state financing coupled with centralized cost controls and a statewide teachers contract. Gov. Howard Dean, who can see perfectly well where Act 60 is heading, has for years been calling for controls on local education spending, and has endorsed the idea of a statewide teachers contract.

Fortunately, there is a way to keep Vermont from turning into One Big School System. It's called Schoolchildren First: giving parents the money to send their children to the school of their choice. Its public school tuition certificates and tax credit-funded independent school scholarships will call forth many diverse and efficient educational providers.

After a powerful analysis of what's wrong with Hawaii's system, Kam Napier, managing editor of Honolulu magazine, concluded "Let parents choose. And let the money follow that choice, so that successful schools thrive and unsuccessful schools wither away. This is the only way to free parents and children from the tyranny of government schools and provide for the diversity of educational experiences parents and students need."

This is John McClaughry thanks for listening.

--John McClaughry is President of the Ethan Allen Institute, a Vermont policy research and education organization.

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