This sign outside a School on the island of Kauai is indicative of the schedule for Hawaiian students, no school, no school and more no school. (Photo: Jack Yatsko)
Hawaii's public schools are in crisis.
Simply put, there isn't enough money to keep them open full-time. With the State of Hawaii facing a $1 billion budget deficit through the middle of 2011 and a $468 million budget cut to Hawaii's Department of Education, in September the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) voted to accept a two-year contract that includes 17 furlough days for both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 academic years.
Commonly referred to in the islands as "furlough Fridays," the cuts have been scheduled for regular school days, reducing Hawaii's public instruction from 180 days to 163, the fewest in the nation and ten days less than the state second from the bottom, North Dakota.
The classroom cuts were made despite President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's call for the nation's schools to increase the amount of classroom time so that the US can better compete in the global marketplace.
With what was, for most parents, an unexpected and unwelcome surprise, the furloughs have sparked a firestorm of debate in which state politics, budget priorities and questions about the impact school cuts will have on students, their families and the state have all come to a head.
There is no shortage of frustration to go around, particularly among parents of public school children. One such parent is Jack Yatsko, a PTSA member and the father of fifth and eighth grade daughters on the island of Kauai. At an anti-furlough rally he helped organize one week prior to the first furlough day, Yatsko said in a speech before Kauai's state building, "our kids are not poker chips in a high stakes game of budget and contract negotiations."
Yatsko pointed out that in 2005 and 2006, the Department of Education consistently informed parents that if their child missed 10 or more days of school without a medical excuse, they could be prosecuted for educational neglect.
Of the 34 furlough days planned this year and next, Yatsko said, "this is educational neglect."
Another parent on Kauai, Nadine Nakamura, has a son in fourth grade and daughter in eighth grade. Nakamura is also a PTSA member and is chair of her School Community Council.
Like Yatsko, she sees a web of blame-game being played. "Everyone is pointing to the other group, saying, 'it wasn't us.' The governor says she wasn't involved in negotiations. The legislature says the governor wouldn't raise taxes, then you have the Board of Education and Department of Education saying the legislature and governor shouldn't have cut their budget in the first place. Some are saying parents should have rallied a long time ago. One state legislator says, "I can't believe the teachers approved [a contract with furloughs]."
Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, among the most vocal state legislators calling for a special legislative session to examine possible alternatives to the furlough days, calls the classroom cuts "unacceptable."
In an op-ed piece in the Honolulu Advertiser, Hooser suggested a using a portion of a $180 million Hurricane Relief Fund as one way to keep schools open. Hooser has also called for reforming Hawaii's general excise tax which, unlike most states, generates the bulk of Hawaii's education funding. So-called "new sin taxes" on soda, processed and fast food, and petroleum oils are potential revenue generators, Hooser wrote.
According to Wil Okabe, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, Hawaii's public schools, which operate as a single school district, cost $5 million a day to run. The latest two-year contract, approved by 81 percent of voting teachers, reduces their pay by nearly 8 percent as it slashes instructional days for students.
And while Hawaii received over $157 million in stimulus funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, money intended to keep the state from cutting education services, Okabe indicated that it was Governor Lingle who imposed 14 percent budget cuts on the Department of Education while using stimulus money for balancing the state budget. Okabe called it a "shell game."
He added that Hawaii's schools do have the opportunity, if they choose, to individually vote to exchange non-instructional work time such as "professional development" or "wavier days" for cancelled class days as an alternative to furlough Fridays.
One woman who knows Hawaii's education system intimately is Maggie Cox. Currently serving her second four-year term as Kauai's representative to the Board of Education, Cox has worked as a teacher, vice principal and principal for 40 years in Hawaii. She also served on the negotiating committee for the contracts that include the 17 furlough days.
Cox says that if the governor or state legislature wanted to "bail out" the schools, they could have done so last spring. If they provide the funds, she says, the schools can return to offering full instruction.
While stressing that the Board of Education reduced classroom cuts by over 50 percent (from Lingle's originally requested 36 days to 17), Cox said, "we did the best we could to have as little impact on the schools as possible." She concedes that reduced classroom time means some subjects won't be covered or covered as well (in the classroom). Cox also noted that prior to the furlough days, Hawaii's academic year was 180 days, in keeping with the majority of public schools across the country but, as she acknowledged, well below that of countries in Europe and Asia.
"When you look at other nations, teachers' salaries and schools are top priority. The budgets are there for them," Cox said.
According to Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2003 research, the average number of instructional days in Korea, Japan and China was over 221, with Australia, Russia, England and Canada all between 188 and 196 days. With the latest cuts, students in Hawaii could have up to 12 weeks less class time a year than those in East Asia.
Meanwhile, nearly one-third of Hawaii's public schools are in restructuring as they attempt to meet federal No Child Left Behind requirements and Hawaii's fourth and eighth graders' test scores lag behind in National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings.
Here a cut, there a cut
Hawaii's state employee furloughs haven't been limited to educators and school employees. One furloughed state employee is Raymond Catania, a social services assistant with the Department of Human Services, Child Services, and an 18-year veteran with the state.
Catania, who has two teenage daughters, one a sophomore at Kauai High School, pulls no punches.
"By forcing teachers to take furloughs, it hits our children. Rich families can send their kids to Punahou (where Obama studied) or other private schools, but the working class can't afford that so our kids get cheated."
"The governor got what she wanted - furloughs and layoffs," Catania said, blaming the Lingle administration for not raising the general excise tax in a bid to please what he called "the business community she represents."
All options, including the hurricane fund, tax increases and the introduction of a lottery to generate revenue, should be examined, Catania said, adding that the governor shares blame for the school cuts with the teachers' union leadership.
"They (HSTA) were in the best position to resist the furloughs. There was far more sympathy for teachers and kids than for state workers like me. If the union refused to accept furloughs, there would have been a lot of public support, but they gave in and settled quickly."
And while many argue that temporary furloughs are better than layoffs, Catania disagrees. "Some elements in the community say, 'at least we've got our jobs.' The slaves had jobs. So what? My wife and I have three jobs and we can't even pay our bills and we're not alone."
In a state with some of the highest living costs in the nation, where salaries are consistently lower than national averages, Catania's frustrations are not uncommon. The furloughs and classroom cuts have only rubbed salt in open wounds.
Catania said that with Hawaii's huge military presence, it is painful to see military expenditures increase, while the host state suffers what he considers disproportionate cuts to education and human services.
Some State of Hawaii education officials expressed similar criticisms of burgeoning military budgets while education programs are slashed, but refused to be quoted by name.
On Oahu, Kyle Kajihiro, program director for the American Friends Service Committee, an international Quaker-founded nonprofit that works for development, peace programs and social justice, sees the current economic crisis as a pretext to cut programs for political or ideological reasons. He said the cuts are indicative of the state's priorities.
"I have to question why the defense budget keeps going up and up and schools keep getting cut. It's unconscionable." Citing the National Priorities Project, Kajihiro points out that since 2001 Hawaii residents have paid a $3 billion share of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "For that same money, Hawaii could have funded 54,718 elementary school teachers for a year," he said. Hawaii has around 13,000 public school teachers.
Long-term effects of school cuts include lowering Hawaii's competitiveness and ability to diversify its economy, keeping Hawaii dependent on federal handouts and tied to an economy based on the military and tourism, Kajihiro said.
Instead, Kajihiro said that because Hawaii is an isolated state with finite land and natural resources and heavily reliant on imported food and energy, it could also be a case study of best practices that could apply to the rest of the planet.
"There is experience here based on ancient Hawaiian models that we could be capitalizing on to create a new paradigm of economic development and sustainability, but we need to foster young people with the necessary imagination and schooling to become global leaders."
"Politicians and community leaders always say children are our future. This is the time they need to prove that they mean it by funding our schools and investing in education."