Hawaii Governor Ends ‘Mind-Boggling’ Furloughs After Being Called Out By Education Secretary

Gov. Linda Lingle (R-HI)

Gov. Linda Lingle (R-HI)

In order to deal with their budget shortfalls and constitutional mandates to balance their budgets, many states have unfortunately turned to cutting education funding. Hawaii, however, took its cost-cutting to the extreme by imposing “Furlough Fridays,” a series of state-mandated school closures that cut ten percent off of the academic calendar.

The decision to impose furloughs drew the ire of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said last week that Hawaii’s decision was “mind-boggling,” and added that the furloughs all but disqualified Hawaii from competing for the $4 billion in Race to the Top funds that were included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act:

“I don’t know anyone who can make a case that eliminating 10 percent of your school days is good for the children of Hawaii,” he said. Moreover, Hawaii faces “a heck of a challenge” to make a compelling case that it qualifies for between $20 million to $75 million in federal “Race to the Top” competitive grants next year, he said.

Yesterday, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle (R) saw the light and decided to end Furlough Fridays:

Gov. Linda Lingle plans to eliminate 27 Furlough Fridays at Hawaii’s public schools by tapping the so-called rainy day fund and switching teacher training days to class time…Under Lingle’s plan, furlough days would be restored starting Jan. 1 by using $50 million from the fund, formally the Emergency and Budget Reserve Fund, and converting non-instructional hours to instructional hours, totaling 15 school days.

First, this episode highlights that more aid to states should be part of any job creation package that Congress might consider. Letting states slash their primary education systems to smithereens serves no one’s interest — not the teachers who see their purchasing power diminish, the parents who need to find alternative arrangements for their children during the day, or the students whose education has been compromised.

But even given the budget situation, Lingle’s furloughs were an extraordinarily bad idea. Lawmakers really need to rethink their knee-jerk impulse to reduce time in the classroom when faced with budget problems, as expanding time — particularly discarding the outdated 180 day model — and trying to integrate schools into the wider community is a necessary part of revitalizing America’s education system. As Duncan told The Wonk Room last month, schools that are following the traditional model of six hours per day, five days per week, for nine months “don’t serve anyone well.”

As CAP pointed out in a new report examining leaders and laggards in terms of innovation in education, “Hawaii does a below-average job managing its schools in a way that encourages thoughtful innovation. Ninety-four percent of teachers report that routine duties and paperwork interfere with their teaching, and only 22% of teachers like the way their school is run.” Let’s hope that this controversy over the furloughs causes Hawaii’s administration to take a deeper look at its education policies.