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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Blueprint in hand, Lingle can restore school year at last

By Garrett Toguchi

Public school furloughs should soon be over now that the Legislature has appropriated funds to keep schools open and teachers have given up planning time to restore instructional days. 

The Department of Education has the ability to eliminate all 17 furloughs scheduled for the 2010-11 academic year by using $67 million lawmakers transferred from the Hurricane Relief Fund to pay for 11 school days and by converting six teacher planning days into instructional days. This is in accordance with a supplemental agreement reached by the DOE, Board of Education and the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

During negotiations to address school furloughs, Gov. Linda Lingle's main demand was for teachers to utilize their planning days to teach students, and she once offered to use up to $62 million in special funds. The supplemental agreement reached by the DOE, BOE and HSTA requested about $92 million to end what were then four remaining furlough days in the current school year, and 11 days next year, with teachers contributing six planning days. 

The governor's willingness to provide additional funding demonstrates a belief that public education must take a high priority among government services. The HSTA's decision to give up planning days demonstrates a strong commitment toward returning students to school.

The Legislature should also be commended. After several public hearings and repeated calls from parent groups to end furloughs, lawmakers voted to pass Senate Bill 2124, which appropriated $67 million from the hurricane fund to address a real emergency.

Once Lingle signs the bill and releases all funds, parents, students, teachers, school staff and administrators will be able to plan for a full academic year of instruction.

The supplemental agreement leaves more than $110 million in the hurricane fund, allowing it to collect interest and quickly replenish. Keeping the hurricane fund with this healthy balance would be enough to preserve the state's bond rating.

Moreover, relying solely on a portion of hurricane funds to bring students back to class will not affect the state's budget since no additional general funds will be needed to open campuses. And eliminating furloughs will better position Hawai'i to win some $75 million in Race to the Top grants, since one key criteria of the federal contest requires states to make education funding a priority. 

We continue to receive letters from students pleading for school days to be restored. One student shares the difficulties of keeping up with added homework and reduced time in class. Another cites a lack of motivation to study when the school week is so often cut short. Struggling students trying to steer their young lives back on track lament how they've lost valuable days to complete credit work that would help them graduate on time.

And then there's the young, only child who simply misses the highlight of her day seeing her classmate friends and learning from adult role models.

These stories constantly remind us that there is more to the furlough issue than who gets the best deal or holds the right cards. The governor has before her an agreement that addresses her concerns. It relies on teachers giving up much of their planning time and uses some of the money from a special fund that does not adversely impact the state's finances.

Let's take the high road as our students have urged. Let's put our differences aside and let the children learn.

We can't afford not to.