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Mr. President: You left Hawaii too soon

My esteemed colleague on the Post's editorial pages, Jo-Ann Armao, suggested last month that President Obama cut his Honolulu vacation short to get back to Washington and handle the crisis of the terrorist who tried to blow up a jetliner landing in Detroit. She has a point. It is an important issue, although no one except the potential bomber got hurt.

I have a different view. I wish the president had stayed in Hawaii and used his considerable influence in the state where he was born to solve a crisis that is hurting thousands of kids right now---the stalled talks that have forced the state to cut school days by ten percent this year. That is precious learning time that those students are not going to get back.

As I said here two months ago, when I first took up this issue:

"State education officials decided the best way to save money was to force teachers to take 17 days off without pay, the kind of furlough system that many states have used to cut government expenses. But doing this with teachers is a very bad idea. Every study we have indicates that instructional time is key in raising student achievement. Cutting back the available time by nearly 10 percent is a huge blow to learning in Hawaii, but the officials who have endorsed this option don't seem to understand that."

The furlough Friday system meant the state school system's 170,000 students only attended school four days a week, saving $5 million for each of those added non-school days. The state school superintendent said if courts overturned the furloughs, the board of education would have to lay off probationary teachers, administrators and others, and force an increase in class sizes. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, she said the amount of time spent in the classroom is less important than "the quality of education I'm giving that child."

She was wrong. As I said, "If doing layoffs removed quality teachers from the schools, then she would be right, but she already said that tenured and special education teachers would not be dismissed. So what she is saying is that having more students in the class is worse for them than having less time in class. The most detailed studies of class size, such as the Tennessee STAR research, show that it has little effect on learning unless you get class sizes below 17 students per class, far below what Hawaiian class sizes are now."

It seems to me the president could have gotten this worked out in a couple of hours of reasonable conversations with the people involved. The Hawaii department of education and the state teachers association were close to a deal to end furlough Fridays, but the governor rejected their request to use $35 million from the state's rainy day fund. According to the Advertiser, he governor's staff is still willing to talk, but this has already dragged on for many weeks.

I know you have other things on your mind, Mr. President. But how about giving these folks a call? Hawaiian schools, on many measures, are far from the best, and losing all this time is not going to help. Give them a few ideas on how to hammer out a deal, and get those young Hawaiians eager to learn--just as you once were--back to school.

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By Jay Mathews  | January 6, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Tags:  Hawaiian schools crisis, President Obama, class size, furlough Fridays, president's home state, terrorist incident  
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