Hawaii’s 2011 legislative session was packed with debate over hot educational issues. And the new session, which begins January 18, promises to pick up where the drama left off.

Issues that still haven’t cooled down and will certainly surface again include charter schools, classroom/instructional time, junior kindergarten, bullying and school buses, lawmakers told Civil Beat this week.

Expect to see a move toward a broad cultural shift, education committee leaders said, one that gives more power to the Board of Education and front-line decision-makers like complex area superintendents.

Bigger-picture changes that may be in store for the Hawaii Department of Education would come in the form of “statutory cleanup,” as Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda calls it.

Over the summer and fall, her office performed an audit of the laws covering charter schools as well as the regular public school system. The result is a package of bills attempting to streamline educational decision-making — which in many cases may mean taking the Legislature out of the process.

“It’s basically taking us away from legislating into the weeds in our educational system, and instead honoring our constitutional mandate that the Board of Education will set educational policy,” Tokuda said.

If successful, these cleanup bills will be part of a broad cultural shift in the Department of Education, for the policymakers to stop micromanaging and put decisions in the hands of those best equipped to make them — supposedly those on the front lines of teaching and running schools.

Tokuda plans to propose a similar but more dramatic cleanup for the charter school system, based on the results of the Charter School Governance Task Force she co-chaired with Rep. Della Au Belatti over the summer and fall. The task force last week recommended a complete overhaul of the authority structure for charter schools.

House Education Chairman Roy Takumi said it will be interesting to see whether task force members will continue to support the recommendations once they’re in the form of a bill.

“The dynamic of working groups is that there’s a certain level of civility and politeness throughout the process, but when an actual bill is produced, that’s when true feelings come out,” he said.

Takumi also predicts there will be an engaging discussion and possibly some bills about instructional time, and what that means. It could mean the number of hours a student is in the seat facing the front of the classroom, or it could include other school-related activities in which learning takes place and students find real-life applications for what they’ve learned.

In April this year, the battle got heated over how much time to add to teachers’ work loads in a year of budget cuts. Takumi said then that before counting hours and minutes, he wanted to define more clearly what instructional time is, and he sees the new session as Hawaii’s opportunity. He is awaiting a report (which is already late, he said good-naturedly) from the Department of Education that will begin to address that “more existential question.”

Junior kindergarten is going to be a big issue too, Takumi said, because the state is raising the eligible age for kindergarten enrollment, but needs to create a transition plan into a state-funded preschool program that effectively helps late-born children prepare for kindergarten.

The emotionally charged issue of bullying — particularly cyber-bullying — is bound to come up again. After the 2011 session, the governor signed a law tightening requirements for schools to report bullying incidents, but both education chairs believe bullying should be addressed at a statewide level instead of just for the school system. Law enforcements experts have expressed concern that creating laws specific to schools creates gaps in enforcement.

For example, it’s difficult for school officials to enforce Department of Education rules on incidents of cyber-bullying, said Tokuda, because that type of harassment often occurs off-campus.

“The problem is that we know bullying and cyber-bullying are pervasive,” she said. “It happens at school, at play, to homeschool students, to college students, and it happens to us.”

Finally, school buses are bound to be a hot topic, Takumi said, referencing Civil Beat’s Taken for a Ride series.

The Legislature eliminated funding for regular school buses next year in the face of skyrocketing costs, and said it wouldn’t reinstate it unless the department presented a convincing plan to reduce costs. It left $29 million for students with special needs.

And even though it hasn’t yet submitted its plan to cut expenses, the district has asked for even more state money for student transportation.

A little more than four weeks before the session, the education chairs already have their hands full. And both Tokuda and Takumi said additional education issues always surface closer to opening day. In the first two weeks of January, Takumi said, he often receives visits from other legislators asking him to sign onto their education-related bills.

“I think there’s not going to be a shortage of things for us to do next year,” Tokuda said. “But part of that is for me to practice what I’m preaching about being aware of the kinds of things we put into statutes.”

About the Author