The members of Kanu Hawaii are working for a future built on island lessons of sustainability, aloha, and self reliance. The recent agreement between the DOE, BOE, teachers union and the Governor to close public schools on 17 Fridays puts that future in serious jeopardy.
The decision is the result of a series of missteps, miscalculations, and a general failure to prioritize the future of our children – a failure by our elected leaders, union representatives, and ourselves as supporters and citizen watchdogs of our school system.
How We Got Here
The story of “furlough Fridays” starts with the economic downturn and the State fiscal crisis. Earlier this year, the Legislature and the Governor had to find a mix of taxes and spending that balanced the State budget as revenues dwindled. They also had the power to set priorities, picking critical services to be maintained, and less essential or wasteful spending to be reduced.
During budget-making, both Legislature and Governor could have prioritized students by preserving the education budget, raising taxes to safeguard school funding, or cutting other areas to shift the burden of cuts away from students. Instead, the Governor opposed tax increases, and both she and Legislature adopted an approach to budgeting guided by the principle of "everyone should sacrifice equally," making cuts across the board. The "everyone sacrificing" would include students, it seemed.
Even with less funding, it was possible to minimize student suffering. When the HSTA and the Governor sat down to negotiate a new contract last month, they could have explored ways to protect students. For instance, the union could have cut planning days and holidays to meet the funding shortfall. Instead, they bargained with instructional days hoping this would force the Governor to give in to their demands. The Governor held her ground on the “equal sacrifice” principle. Again, students could have been prioritized, but were not.
The result is a teachers' contract with 17 less instructional days for students in the 2009-10 school year – a 10% reduction in class time. Students were used as a bargaining chip, and students came out the big loser.
How much does 17 days matter?
Not surprisingly, the educational research supports a very common sense conclusion: Take more time to teach, and outcomes for kids get better. Take less time, and there is less learning. Cut enough hours and days, and students have little hope of competing with peers in other places that offer more hours and days of school. A range of studies and reports support this finding. You can read some of them here.
The evidence is so strong that experts and elected officials across the country propose lengthening the school year. Just a few weeks ago, President Obama declared, "The challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom." Instead of clinging to a 180 day calendar built for a time when kids helped with the summer harvest, we should join the ranks of other industrialized countries that have school years of 200 days or more. Obama said a longer school year would help our kids compete with graduates from abroad.
At the very moment when the President has called for a longer school year, his home state has trimmed its year down to 163 days – the shortest school year of any state in the nation. Most states have a school year that is at least 180 days, and a majority have laws requiring a minimum number of school days per year. Hawaii has no such law, leaving it to the teachers' contract to dictate how many days of schooling students will get.
Even with a “full” school year, Hawaii students struggle to keep up with peers elsewhere. Hawaii's 8th graders rank 47th among kids from the 50 states in both Math and Reading. Hawaii has been among the worst performing states for the better part of a decade on the most widely respected standardized test in the country. The loss of instructional time will push our kids further toward the bottom of the heap.
Another way to think about the impact is this: Each of us has stories of a particular moment when a special teacher changed our lives. What if that one life-changing “teachable moment” fell on a furlough Friday? How many transformational experiences have we cut along with those 17 days?
If furlough Fridays are allowed to stand, a whole generation of kids will be affected. We will hamstringing their ability to work, go to college, and be competent citizens. We are also putting them behind (further behind) their peers, who will compete against them for jobs, political voice, and prosperity.
A Failure of Leaders and Us, Their Bosses
Each of our leaders had a chance to step up for kids. Instead, a game of political hot potato unfolded – each leader passing the spud to the next, trying to make sure the other guy got burned. This game continues in the aftermath: The union blames the Governor, the Governor blames the union, both blame the Legislature for failing to grapple with budget issues and find the funding; the Legislature holds hearings to grill education officials. We are to blame, too - we elected these people, after all, and we could hold them accountable if we were more attentive and involved.
Shortly after furlough Fridays were announced, parents in some neighborhoods pooled their money and offered to pay teachers to come in and teach. Many teachers wanted to, but both parents and teachers were advised not to press ahead. A 1970s conflict of interest policy preventing teachers from teaching for pay outside “regular school hours” was cited as the reason. That policy was written to prevent teachers from purposely doing a bad job during the regular school day so they could get paid to tutor students after hours.
Some teachers even said they were willing to volunteer their time on Fridays to make sure learning continues. Again they were cautioned to hold off by the DOE. Concerns were raised over liability, a lack of support services at schools, and "pressuring" other teachers to follow suit.
Educational leaders pointed to liability and conflict of interest rules (rules designed to protect kids) as the things standing between willing teachers and kids in need of instruction. These are examples of an adult inability to ask “what's best for kids?” in this situation – an inability evident at the highest levels of leadership.
What Can Be Done
It's not too late for everyone – including our elected, appointed, union, and educational leaders – to start demonstrating that they prioritize our children. If they were to step up, here is what one way forward might look like:
1. The Legislature could convene a Special Session to find funding to fill part of the school budget gap, perhaps using a portion of the Hurricane Fund or the Rainy Day Fund. The new funds would cover only some of the 17 furlough days, and some of these funds would be kept in reserve.
2. The Governor could then approve the release of these funds for school purposes. She would have to resist vetoing efforts by the Legislature to find resources for schools.
3. With part of the shortfall covered, the Governor and and HSTA could re-open the contract. The education leaders could offer to make up the difference using holidays and planning days, or unpaid work days to fill the gap. Instructional days for this school year would be restored.
4. Come January and a new regular legislative session, all parties could consider longer term funding options.
Some oppose this path because they worry about using the Hurricane Fund, thinking of it as a disaster relief fund. Actually, the fund is set up to provide insurance to homeowners who couldn't get private hurricane insurance after Iniki. But today, most people have private hurricane insurance, and federal funds are set aside for disaster relief.
Others oppose this course of action because "it gives union leaders what they want (partially restored funding), and they're the reason we're in this mess in the first place." There's some truth to this, but it's also beside the point. If we ask “what's best for kids?” it's clear our priority should be on restoring school days, and restoring them now. The principle of “equal fiscal suffering” shouldn't trump that.
We should also distinguish between union leaders and the teachers they represent. The teachers I know have always put their students first, laboring under crushing constraints -- too little funding, facilities in disrepair, too narrow an emphasis on test scores, and parents unable (or sometimes unwilling) to support learning at home. Amazingly, many teachers are still willing to volunteer, work at reduced pay, or find other ways to keep teaching in the face of furlough Fridays. Many are deeply disturbed by the solution that was negotiated on their behalf.
The point is that there are options to pursue. But again, the potato is being passed: Legislators say there's no sense in a Special Session if the Governor will veto any use of special funds; the Governor says her hands are tied because funding is unavailable; the union doesn't want to reopen contract negotiations that just concluded. No one is standing up for kids.
We the people - parents, teachers, and friends of keiki - will have to do it. To move our leaders to action, we will have to step up. Here's some things we can do.
1. Sign the petition urging leaders to take action
A group of public school parents has organized Hawaii Education Matters to protest furlough Fridays and urge our leaders to do whatever is necessary to reopen the schools. You can sign the petition here.
2. Rally at the State Capitol on Friday, October 23, 10am to 1pm.
HEM is also organizing a rally, with a little help from Kanu. It will take a massive showing of our public outrage to move the Governor, the Legislature, and the HSTA off of their positions, and stop the game of hot potato. Click here to commit to coming out.
3. Use the power of our stories to persuade others.
Share a story of how one moment with a teacher changed your life by joining this group and journaling there. Describe the moment and name the teacher. Email him or her with a link to your posting. We'll compile the stories and ask leaders, “What if that one life-changing moment fell on a furlough Friday?
4. Volunteer to help sustain student learning.
Many community organizations are jumping in to provide childcare and educational opportunities on furlough Fridays. A few examples include the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club. We can use our volunteer energy to help with childcare, instruction, chaperoning, and other tasks.
5. Be good parents and mentors.
It's hard to think of a better time to take up a personal commitment to be a good parent, mentor and friend to keiki. We can read to kids (ours or someone else's), find a child to mentor, look after our neighbors' kids, involve students in service projects, adopt a school, donate to schools, and more. The Kanu way is to accept kuleana even as we push for institutional change, after all.
Many of us are feeling frustrated and helpless, but there are things we can do to serve our students.
Getting 17 days back would be a real victory and good step. But, it's a step that only gets our kids back to where they were – behind other kids who are learning more elsewhere. We must channel the outrage about furlough Fridays into a more sustained and organized effort to change our school system and support it with parent and community energy. More on that in Part II.
For now, let's focus on taking immediate action, doing our part, and building some momentum. If we care about our keiki, their learning, their future and ours, it's time to mobilize. We can start with the petition, the rally, and our own volunteer energy. We can follow this up with sustained commitment to keep watch, push for change, and hold our leaders accountable. If our leaders will not act, if they will not stand up for our kids, it's time for us to say, “We will." In fact, that time has long since passed. It's time to say "We must."
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