Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Time to clean up the school furlough mess

The following opinion piece, written by Rep. Roy Takumi, was printed on October 30, 2009 in the Honolulu Advertiser.

One day I came across Karley, my granddaughter, sitting in the middle of a mess in the living room. When asked "Who did this?" she said, "Isaiah," her oldest brother and favorite target when needing someone to blame. It's not surprising she wouldn't fess up; after all, she's only 2 years old.

What's surprising is how we got into this mess of achieving the dubious distinction of having the fewest classroom days in the country. After all, adults, not children, made this mess.

Oh, I've heard all the arguments. Some say, "It's only fair that we all have to share the pain." But by insisting that everyone has to be furloughed the same number of days may be fair to the adults, it certainly isn't right for our children.

Others say, "It came down to a dollars-and-cents issue." But to save a few cents we have abandoned our common sense. Furloughs shortchange our children's future and represent a collective failure by all of us — including me. It raises disturbing questions about what we value and what we believe is important.

I don't want to sugarcoat our situation. The budget deficit is real, but we are not alone. Forty-seven other states are facing budget gaps totaling at least $350 billion over the next two years. Yet states such as Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Oregon have bigger deficits than we do but did not enact furloughs to the degree that we did.

I'm not interested in pointing fingers. I am far more interested in where we go from here. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's suggestion that all the stakeholders work it out is a critical first step (The Honolulu Advertiser, Oct. 25).

But it won't go anywhere unless there is a willingness to reopen the negotiations. The governor needs to take the lead on this.

Once this happens, then the greater community — parents, students, unions, businesses, non-profits, legislators, congressional delegation, BOE, DOE — needs to reach a consensus on how to get our students back into the classroom. Every option — drawing down of special funds, seeking federal assistance, targeted tax increases, wage cuts, exchanging noninstructional days and holidays, rearranging the school calendar — needs to be on the table.

Let me put it in practical terms.: If teachers were willing to accept a combination of a small wage cut (for example, a 1 percent cut would save two furlough days) and a few furlough days that fall on holidays, this would reduce the cut in classroom days by three or four. We could also require that every school exchange a certain number of noninstructional days. As it stands, less than a third of the schools have requested this. If the governor is open (along with the Legislature) to using a portion of the Hurricane Relief Fund or consider a slight temporary increase in the GET, a few more days would be saved.

No one has the silver-bullet solution, but I believe we can reach a consensus that is based solely on what is in the best interests of our children.

Still, this is only a short-term approach. We also need to seriously debate longer-term strategies for moving to a more efficient, effective and focused system. This means closing low-performing schools, consolidating schools that no longer serve communities due to shrinking enrollments, funding universal pre-school, and increasing alternatives for learning such as on-line instruction and charter schools.

We also need to closely scrutinize every government service that is currently provided and make the hard decisions on which services are less critical and which are necessary. We should not let the governor simply lay off employees without public input.

That day when Karley couldn't quite take responsibility for what she did was what educators call a teachable moment. It was a moment when I as an adult had to explain to her that when you make a mess, you are responsible for cleaning it up.

This is also a teachable moment for us adults. We made a mess. We are responsible for cleaning it up.

Let's get to work.

Representative Roy Takumi, D-36th (Pearl City) is chairman of the House Education Committee. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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