It’s difficult to recall a time when Hawaii’s public schools have not been a major concern to citizens.

Poor test scores. Aging facilities. Overheated classrooms. Teacher vacancies. Retention challenges. It’s no wonder that local public opinion polls consistently rank education as a top priority, as does most every politician.

But it is also confounding that Hawaii currently spends out of its general fund about $1.9 billion a year on K-12 — or roughly one-quarter of the state’s $8 billion operating budget.

Where does all that taxpayer money go? Who makes those decisions? Is the money being spent wisely?

And why should Hawaii give more money to schools, as has been proposed recently by the teachers union through taxing investment properties or increasing the general excise tax?

Nearly one-fourth of Hawaii’s operating budget — the yellow slice — is spent on K-12 public education.

Ige Administration

These logical questions are now being asked by a group called the Education Institute of Hawaii. For a year now it has been trying to get the Hawaii Department of Education to open its books so that the people who pay for schools — that would be us — can see if they are getting their money’s worth.

But, as Civil Beat reported last month, the nonprofit EIH has encountered resistance from DOE administrators, even though the state’s singular school system is run by our state government.

“It’s public information, it’s public tax dollars, it’s reasonable and standard information,” said Ray L’Heureux, the institute’s president and a former assistant superintendent in charge of facilities.

The DOE’s position is that it has already made public the information it is required to disclose under Hawaii’s public records law. Superintendent Christina Kishimoto told EIH last month that the DOE would not share confidential data such as individual salaries, medical payments and other personal information.

But the EIH doesn’t want that information and knows that it can’t be disclosed. And despite the DOE’s position that it has been forthcoming, the EIH says it has not fully disclosed its ledgers.

It’s high time for that to happen.

Ray L’Heureux, who served as an assistant superintendent for the Hawaii Department of Education, is the Education Institute of Hawaii’s president.

Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

EIH’s goal is to create a financial transparency model so that anyone can view the data in an easily digestible fashion. The institute plans to turn over the DOE data to EduAnalytics, a Pennsylvania-based consultant that has worked with dozens of other states to analyze school productivity.

Such a model for Hawaii could very well help lawmakers, parents and the media become better informed on school budget decisions. In turn, this could lead to smarter spending and, eventually, better test scores and happier teachers.

The institute is not some right-wing think tank funded by money from the Koch brothers. It’s made up of current and retired local principals, teachers and parents.

Its vice president is Joan Husted, a former executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association and a former chair of the State Commission on the Status of Women. Another former HSTA head, Roger Takabayashi, is also a board member. He taught at Niu Valley Middle, Dole Middle and Farrington High School.

L’Heureux himself was a candidate for governor in 2018 and is currently communications chair for the Hawaii Republican Party.

Among those supporting the institute’s financial transparency campaign is Randy Roth, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Hawaii Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law and a senior policy advisor during the tenure of Gov. Linda Lingle.

Roth, the institute’s former president, submitted online comments Sunday in response to Tom Yamachika’s Civil Beat opinion piece that was a favorable review of the EIH’s efforts. A financial model, Roth said, could reveal how much of DOE expenditures actually reached schools, at which level spending decisions were made, the purpose of each expenditure and who evaluated them for effectiveness.

“This would empower members of each school community (and all other interested parties) to compare spending at one school to spending at another school, at one complex area compared to another, or in Hawaii’s DOE compared to large K-12 systems elsewhere,” wrote Roth. “The DOE has been saying for nearly four years that it intends to make this information available but it has yet to do so. Why does its actions not align with its words?”

The institute is not requesting an audit, something that is already routinely done. And a financial model is not going to cost taxpayers more money. The EIH says it would cover the costs for its project, having already spent $40,000 to that end.

The DOE says it is also already providing spending information through the relatively new online ESSA Dashboard. It’s required by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 that tracks spending per students, academic proficiency, graduation rates and other metrics.

But providing the minimum data as required by the federal government 5,000 miles away is not the same as providing meaningful financial transparency that can drill down to a granular level.

The EIH has abandoned its efforts to petition for the data and is now considering legal action. It has retained the services of attorney Jeff Portnoy of Cades Schutte and is consulting with EIH’s funder, the Mamoru and Aiko Takitani Foundation, to decide what’s next. The foundation’s board of directors includes Hawaii radio personality Michael W. Perry, businessman and former legislator Stuart Ho, and Hideo Kondo, a former executive with Hawaiian Host Chocolates.

The institute would prefer not to go to court over what is, at its essence, an undertaking to make public data that is supposed to be made public. L’Heureux said it is not going to be used for any other purpose than as a decision-making tool by stakeholders — us.

As L’Heureux put it in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser piece in April, true transparency “has to start with, ‘Where’s the money?’”

What could the DOE possibly find wrong with that?

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