September 1, 1998

Parents must get mad

By Cliff Slater

We have had a Legislature "committed to excellence in education." We have had an "education Governor"; several of them, in fact. And our "education stakeholders" are "moving forward"--with "vision" presumably. We do studies, we pass a Student-Centered School Act (union-centered would be more accurate), we implement so-called school/community-based management (SCBM).

Yet, for all this, nothing changes. Hawaii’s public education remains mired among the worst performing states in the nation. All we have had is rhetoric and gloss; nothing of substance.

There’s a reason for it.

Any substantive changes, such as real SCBM, real Charter Schools or Vouchers, threaten the heads of the schools’ public worker unions. For example, real Charter Schools allow teachers and other workers to leave the union. Real SCBM would allow schools control of which people they hired as principals and cafeteria staff. Vouchers would allow total parental power; the choice of whatever school is best for their child regardless of the unions’ wishes.

Any decision making at the school level threatens the centralized state control that is essential for public worker union heads to maintain their present degree of power.

The heads of HSTA—the teachers’ union, HGEA—the principals’ union, and UPW—the custodial workers’ union, are all very tough-minded people. They did not get where they are playing Mr. Nice Guy.

Parents have to realize that these people may care about education but not as much as ensuring that their unions are adequately funded. And legislators may care about education, but not as much as they care about getting reelected.

And public worker unions get people elected and reelected—and un-elected. They do mailings, run phone banks, provide sign wavers and generally provide supportive candidates with a disciplined body of help.

Thus, elected officials get tugged in two directions on education. Parents urge them to do whatever is necessary to improve their child’s education. At the same time public worker union leaders threaten their reelection. Guess who wins?

The only way parents are going to win this tug of war is by out-tugging the unions. Parents have to be more of a threat to the reelection of these officials than the unions’ leaders. There is only one group of people that scare an elected official more than the public worker unions and that is their constituents.

Laura Brown and other Mililani parents are learning this the hard way. Parents in the area are threatened with yet another "innovative" nightmare of an education program called, "multi-track." Essentially, it is year round schooling in shifts so that facilities that normally handle 300 kids can accommodate 400. But imagine some of the problems. How do you know who is playing hooky? How do you coordinate sporting activities? Or take a long vacation?

Of course, Laura and her friends are just parents and so the authorities did not bother to consult them. Initially, these parents complained to the DOE and got nowhere. Then they sought out their legislators, Sen. Randy Iwase and Rep. Marilyn Lee who also paid little attention to them.

So they’ve decided to fight back. They now have over 100 members in their newly formed PTSA. Between stuffing mailboxes, getting petitions signed, faxing and phone banking, these members will soon exert influence over the election process.

This is how parents can effect change in public education. A new Superintendent of Education, no matter how sincere and competent, cannot rein in the schools’ public worker unions—only riled up voters can.