Honolulu Advertiser

Second Opinion by Cliff Slater

April 28, 2003


Managing Hawai’i education

Since I last wrote about Dr. Ouchi’s research into decentralized schooling (3/17) he has created quite a stir in meetings with the governor and the legislature and a bill, HB 80, making its way through the Capitol.

His study showed, basically, that the school districts producing the best student outcomes were those whose school principals controlled the greatest percentage of the district’s education budget.

It is well that we understand why that would be.

Remember, the three basic elements of the high-performing school districts described by Dr. Ouchi were:

  • First, power to the principals. Allocating the greatest budgetary control possible to the schools. For example, in the Edmonton, Alberta, school district, principals control 92% of the district’s education budget.
  • Second, adopting Weighted Student Formula where each student is allocated basic funding adjusted for any state and federal funding available for gifted students, emotionally disabled or autistic students, poor students, and non-native English speakers. And the funding follows that student.
  • Third, total school choice where parents may place their child in any public school they wish.

What has happened in these school districts is that while the district retains the monitoring and auditing function, the decision-making that most districts handle is decentralized to the schools. Business did away with large centralized bureaucracies long ago; as the information age took hold they became superfluous.

Real knowledge in business organizations is found where the work is being done and, in the information age, decentralized organizations can take advantage of that. It appears that public educators are finally realizing that this also holds true for them.

From discussions with principals, I have learned they believe there is little or nothing in the education budget that they could not spend better than the DOE presently spends it. And the independence of principals means their having the authority and the money to improve their schools, which removes most excuses for doing a poor job—and greater pride in doing a good one.

With school choice comes competition and that invariably improves service. Think of how Home Depot has improved City Mill. And competition works both ways. Schools wanting to attract good students will not want to accept children with a history of disruptive behavior. It is likely that stricter disciplinary policies will be adopted than is currently the case.(1)

Local control allows the types of decisions that can only be made at each school. For example,

  • “Will we have a more effective science program if we just hire one new science teacher or should we split one with the school down the road and use the half salary saved for a new science lab?”
  • “Will we teach English better with the latest computer program with teachers’ aides as tutors, or hire that new English teacher who is available?”
  • “Will our particular students learn more math if we set up an automotive shop, or should we buy better computers?”

Some of these actions will be right—and some wrong. But competition for students will force failing actions to be cut off while other schools will emulate the successful ones—just as is done in business.

And the wrong actions will be short-term ones made by individual schools and not systemic in the statewide district. In the latter case DOE bureaucrats’ egos are at stake. With no competition to face, they have difficulty reversing themselves whereas with competition, egos have to be sublimated.

The net of it all is that the present DOE will shrivel down to the auditing and monitoring function; it will not be missed.

To paraphrase P. J. O’Rourke, “It is a popular delusion that the DOE wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.”

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater


(1) Edmonton’s policy:

Classroom Conduct--Students are expected to participate actively and productively in all classes. The conduct in classes is to be such as to allow all class members to concentrate on the task at hand. When a student's behavior disrupts the learning process for others, the teacher may take appropriate action to deal with the problem. For example, the teacher may isolate the disruptive student, assign a detention, or in extreme cases send the student to the office for the period involved. Sometime during or at the end of the school day, the disruptive student must see the teacher involved to resolve the difficulty.

If a student is involved again in disruptive behavior, within a short period of time, the same procedures as above will be applied. In addition, the Administration of the school and the parents of the student will likely also become involved. It will be made clear to both the student and the parents that the disruptive behavior must cease. Consequences such as suspension from class or school could take place if the disruptive behavior continues beyond several warnings. Continuous disruptive behavior in the classroom will not be tolerated.

In general, each case of seemingly disruptive classroom behavior is dealt with individually by the teacher and/or administrator. A sincere effort is made to act in the best interests of the student and the class involved. A record of student behavior is kept by the teachers and the administration.