Cliff Slater’s Second Opinion

The Honolulu Advertiser

Monday, September 13, 1999


 Education isn't underfunded

Regarding the interview with Superintendent of Schools Paul LeMahieu (Advertiser, Aug. 22) Dr. Paul LeMahieu declared: "Education is underfunded, by any objective measure that I can ask anybody to find or trace for me." (1)

In fairness, he did not ask me. So, let me point out a few things:

  • He should compare today’s Hawaii spending with that of twenty years ago. He will find that, allowing for inflation, we spend today 47% more per student than we did then while paying teachers 15% less. (2) It is a little hint that we may have accumulated some wasteful overhead in the intervening years.
  • He should also compare our current public school expenditures with that of private schools. We do not have reliable data comparing Hawaii’s public and private schools. However, nationally, private schools cost far less than public schools and the performance of its students is better.(3) There is nothing to have us believe that Hawaii results would be any different.

Another little hint about overhead: The 70 private schools that are members of the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools have their common problems and opportunities handled by a staff of just four people.

  • He should also compare us to other countries. Hawaii’s education costs are far greater while our student performance lags. The U.S. Dept of Education estimates that if Hawaii students had participated in the Third International Math and Science Study, the only places with poorer scores would have been Colombia, Cyprus, Kuwait, South Africa and Iran.(4)

Again, another little hint about overhead: The U.S. has a far higher ratio of staff to teachers than any other country. For example, for each ten teachers, Belgium has 2.5 staff members, Japan three, Australia five and the U.S. no less than thirteen.(5)

  • Then he could go through this little back-of-the-envelope exercise: Hawaii taxpayers currently spend $6,000 annually per student (2), or $150,000 for each class of 25. A teacher costs about $40,000 and allowing 30% free time—which most teachers do not seem to get—you are up to $57,000. Throw in a little for books and janitorial and you are up to maybe $60,000. Where is the other $90,000? Is it being spent as wisely and efficiently as possible? And need we even ask?

Now what Dr. LeMahieu may have been really saying is that we need more funding given all the constraints of collective bargaining legislation and other public worker union requirements. But that is a far different statement than his unequivocal "by any objective measure" one.

Dr. LeMahieu could have said, in plain English, that freed of these constraints he could turn the schools around on the existing budget. That would at least show us that we have other options than to keep throwing money at the problem.

He could explain to us what real charter schools would do.(6) And how we could significantly reduce school maintenance and cafeteria costs by contracting them out—to parents, maybe?

He could tell us the exciting difference it might make if he was allowed to import a few principals from the Mainland, Spanish teachers from Spain or Japanese teachers from Japan. Or, if he was allowed to scout the Mainland for talented math and science teachers and entice them with premium pay.

The fact is that Dr. LeMahieu is so constrained by union shackles that almost the only action he can take is to ask for more money—they never object to that.

Footnotes to this article and "The tragedy of Hawaii education"(7) from the June 15, 1997 Advertiser are at:


(1) LeMahieu picks up the pieces. Honolulu Advertiser. August 22, 1999. pp. B1 & B4.

(2) See the author's summary of Hawaii quinquennial education statistics. Or download a complete zipped spreadsheet of the annual data in Microsoft Excel format.

(3) The Condition of Education 1996 /Issues in Focus: Public and Private Schools: How Do They Differ? National Center for Education Statistics.

(4) (i)The National Center for Education Statistics linked the results of the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and The Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) for eighth-grade results. They found that if the public school students in Hawaii participated in TIMSS, their average performance in science compared to that of students in the 41 nations that took TIMSS only Colombia, Cyprus, Kuwait, and South Africa would have been worse.

(ii) In mathematics, these same nations together with Iran would have been the only nations with a score worse than Hawaii’s students.

(5) Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators (Paris: OECD. 1995), table p31, pp. 176-177.

(6) President Clinton’s radio address of August 28, 1999 on charter schools.

See also the Charter schools review by the U.S. Dept. of Education and a more recent U.S. DOE release on the nation’s 1,100 charter schools.

(7) Slater, Cliff. The tragedy of Hawaii education. Honolulu Advertiser special on education. June 15, 1997.