The people expressed their wishes loud and clear when they passed a constitutional amendment that replaced the elected board of education with one appointed by the governor. But the amendment passed without an accompanying bill to outline the appointment process.

The bad news: It doesn’t look like the process for appointing Hawaii State Board of Education members is going to be decided overnight.

The good news: The public will most likely be invited to brainstorm with legislators about the best selection process for education board members.

That’s what I learned when talking story Thursday morning with Sen. Jill Tokuda, the new chairwoman of the Hawaii Senate Committee on Education. I also learned that a lot of major questions will remain up in the air until the State House gets organized.

Thirty-four-year-old Tokuda represents the state’s 24th senatorial district: Kaneohe, Kailua and Enchanted Lake.

Even though she has only been in the state Senate since 2006, she has already served as Majority Whip and chaired the Committee on Higher Education during the last two sessions. When she was 18, she served as a non-voting student member of the committee she now chairs. She is also mother to two young children (2 years old and 9 months old, respectively) who she says will become her family’s third generation of James B. Castle High School graduates.

Tokuda had a lot to share about what’s in store for Hawaii education this coming year.

The first big piece of news: The higher ed committee was combined this year with the former committee on P-12 education. Former Sen. Norman Sakamoto chaired the P-12 education committee during the last two sessions. He surrendered his seat this election cycle to run for lieutenant governor.

“It was a hope of mine to bring the education committees back together,” Tokuda told me. “If we’re going to make education a continuum from P-20, it helps that the committee is dealing with all educational levels together.”

As the chair of that committee, she’ll be responsible for deciding which education bills will be heard this coming session, and she will play a critical role in helping her colleagues on the finance committee formulate next year’s education budget.

Tokuda’s hallmark as a committee chair is holding public briefings about complex issues. The idea to have a public meeting about the appointment process before the new legislative session opens? Hers. She also talks to students and actively seeks their feedback and ideas. She remembers how her involvement with the Legislature 16 years ago helped prepare her for leadership in education today.

Her priorities, as she shared them with me:

  • Figuring out how the governor will appoint members to the board of education is at the top of her agenda. And after observing the Board of Regents Advisory Council in action, she has some ideas about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Giving voting power to the non-voting student member on the board of education.
  • Ensuring the Hawaii Department of Education has the legislation it needs to make the most of its Race to the Top money. She is waiting to hear from the department what it needs, she said.
  • Supporting the University of Hawaii as it launches new initiatives for a performance-based budget and collaboration with the P-12 school system.
  • Addressing early childhood education after first meeting with Governor-Elect Neil Abercrombie and people in the early childhood education community.

Although Tokuda has plenty of things on her plate, the public is watching for what the new appointed board will look like and when it will replace the current elected board.

It sounds like the final proposal will look different from the one Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed last session (story here). There are two schools of thought on how the appointment process should work, Tokuda said:

  1. An advisory committee vets and screens candidates, sending a short list to the governor for selection. The Senate grants final approval. This is modeled after the University of Hawaii Board of Regents selection process and is what Lingle vetoed last session.
  2. The governor is granted unlimited flexibility to appoint whomever he or she wants. The Senate grants final approval.

Tokuda favors an approach that she says bridges the two extremes: an advisory committee with a little less power.

“I definitely see the value of having some kind of committee tasked with recruiting and even rating potential candidates,” she said. “But the real key difference — and the question I have — is whether that particular committee or entity should be screening and vetting and filtering out candidates before they go to the governor’s office. I would rather have the governor be able to look at all the candidates that have come forward and applied. They could still have a full slate of information on each individual and a perspective on each individual’s potential contribution to the board, and let him make the final decision.”

Tokuda acknowledges that no single idea is going to be perfect and that hers will have to be tweaked as more stakeholders provide input.

“The shape of the appointment process is evolving as the key players come to light,” she explained.

Her best-case scenario involves gaining a consensus among House and Senate leaders and Abercrombie about how the appointment process should work before the legislative session even begins.

“That way we could have a very quick timeline for introducing, hearing and passing this bill and having it go into implementation,” she said. But she’s accepted the fact that it might take a little longer — especially because the House has still not organized its leadership and committee chairs yet. Until she knows who her House counterpart will be, all education discussions are tentative, she said.

“I think at the end of the day, you don’t want to rush anything this important,” she said. “But at the same time we recognize the urgency with which we are kind of tasked with the job of coming up with this legislation.”

I’ll be doing my best to keep up with Tokuda and her committee this year.

About the Author