Hawaii Gov. David Ige is full of praise for Christina Kishimoto, the new state public schools superintendent.
He’s encouraged by how Kishimoto is already visiting schools around the state.
That, he said, “is a terrific change.” He added later that, “she’s committed to empowerment and community engagement in a different way.”
But the first-term governor is emphatic that he played no direct role in her selection or the decision not to renew her predecessor’s contract when it expired this year.
“I was not involved, my wife was not involved,” Ige said during an hour-long interview Thursday with Civil Beat at his office at the State Capitol. “The board had engaged a consultant to cast a wide net and I feel confident the board chose the best person.”
Ige’s wife, Dawn Amano-Ige, is a former teacher and vice-principal of Kanoelani Elementary School and Moanalua High School.
The nine-member Hawaii Board of Education is in charge of hiring the school superintendent and setting education policy in the state. Since Ige has appointed most of the current members, speculation surfaced last year that he and his wife, who works in education, played a direct role in the superintendent shuffle.
But the governor was firm Thursday that the decision to hire Kishimoto, and to not renew the contract of former superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, was made entirely by the board.
“It was a very top-down period in our public schools system,” he said. “A lot of that was driven by No Child Left Behind and the notion that if we can find things that work, we ought to apply them across every school. I don’t believe that that can be successful.”
Ige’s statements were among his most forceful yet in distancing himself from rumors that he had a hand in the superintendent changeover.
The governor expressed support for the new schools chief, praising Kishimoto’s approach in tackling her new job.
“She is out in the schools. She has made it a point to visit,” he said. “She is talking with teachers, talking with students, she’s listening. I think that’s very important. She’s trying to get a sense of what is important to schools, what’s important to students.”
“I mean, she went to the Farrington-Kamehameha football game unannounced,” he said. “And she’s been going to football games on weekends to get a sense of what is happening at schools. I think that that’s a tremendous change from previous (administrators), just in terms of understanding that the learning occurs at the school, in the classroom.”
Ige, who is running for a second and final term next year, has made education a core priority. As a Hawaii state senator, he challenged then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the 2014 Democratic primary and won, helped by the backing of Hawaii’s teacher’s union.
Since taking office, Ige’s initiatives include putting air-conditioning in Hawaii’s most overheated classrooms. He pledged to cool 1,000 classrooms by the end of last year with a $100 million legislative appropriation. While the program is behind schedule, the governor said he expects the Department of Education will “exceed the goal very soon.”
He also convened a team to create a long-range blueprint for schools consistent with ESSA, the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind. The ESSA blueprint emphasizes more project-based learning, multilingual education and school innovation.
The governor said Thursday he is in favor of giving more power to principals and teachers, having “…those closest to the children … making the most important decisions about how resources are spent.”
“What we heard in the ESSA hearings in virtually every community we went to was, ‘We’re tired of orders and directions from the state office without resources, and telling us what we should be doing,'” he said.
“They (teachers) didn’t want to have to continue with the directions, mandates, orders from the state office. They wanted to be given the resources and be trusted to implement the programs that would be most successful for each community.”
Ige, a Pearl City High graduate who has a degree in electrical engineering from UH Manoa and a MBA from UH, wants to see the number of early college programs in high schools replicated across the state. Those programs allow high school students to accrue college credits.
The governor has personal experience with this track: he attended Leeward Community College while a high school student to earn college credit. He praised such pathways to college credit as empowering for students and also a way to save families money.
“I am excited we are getting to the first cohort of the early college program, and we actually will have students that will graduate with an associate of arts degree before they graduate high school,” he said. “It keeps the best students in the public school system.”
“I believe that the early college program will be a real competitive advantage for the first time in our public schools to keep students on their campuses — to be able to dual-enroll,” he said. “For families to be able to save the money for two years of college is a tremendous incentive today to have your student be at the public schools.”
Hawaii has one of the highest rates of students enrolled in private schools rather than public schools.
Ige said he and his wife decided to enroll their three children in private schools to maximize the opportunity for foreign-language instruction.
Still, he said he is an advocate of how the public schools shape student development, something he has seen firsthand through state office hires.
“The opportunities are different, but I do think that the public school student has a broader range of experiences,” he said. “A lot of time, they are more focused on achieving. They are motivated differently than private school students, and I think when hired, they do a terrific job.”
“I do think we have terrific public schools,” he added.
During the interview, Ige answered several questions about the controversy surrounding the superintendent search.
Ige tapped former principal and teacher Darrel Galera to sit on the education board a month before the board announced in November it would not renew Matayoshi’s contract. Then, in March, Galera announced he would resign from the BOE in order to apply for the superintendent job.
The chain of events fueled speculation that the search for a new superintendent was rigged in Galera’s favor. And much of the scrutiny fell onto the governor, who is friends with Galera.
Ige said Thursday he did not anticipate that Galera would apply to be schools chief at the time of his appointment. He said he had discussed with Galera any potential interest he may have in the top schools job before considering him for the board and that he told him he didn’t think it “appropriate” to appoint him to the board were he interested in that role.
After the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation withdrew a $50,500 grant to fund the search for superintendent based on concern over process, Galera, an education advocate who had many local backers, ultimately withdrew his name from consideration. The recollection of those events is still vivid for the governor.
“It’s interesting that people think I had manipulated the system to try and achieve (a result),” Ige said. “I didn’t have a preference for superintendent other than, I certainly wanted a superintendent who believed in empowerment and believes that the community should be engaged.”