Furloughs Fridays, protests, arrests and empty rhetoric mark a sad chapter in the history of Hawai‘i’s public school system.

Photos by Greg Knudson

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The 2009-2010 school year had 17 fewer school days than originally scheduled, giving Hawai‘i the fewest number of instructional days of any state in the union. With enough blame to go around amongst the teachers union, the Board of Education, the Department of Education, various legislators and the Lingle administration, a small group of education activists took the hard line and became the moral compass for a wayward system.

On April 13, 2010, after the camera crew from the local news station left and the lobby to the governor’s office was quiet, two parents and a student activist of the group Save Our Schools were politely and apologetically arrested and taken a few blocks to the downtown station to be booked. For the two nights prior, activists from Save Our Schools slept under the oil painted gaze of past state governors, flanked by glass cases containing honoraria from foreign ambassadors, model canoes, astronaut flag patches, and tokens of appreciation for a recent gubernatorial visit to China. Months later, April Kamilah Batista, a University of Hawai‘i student activist who was arrested during that spring evening explained, “It was pretty serious, and we’re still not sure what’s going to happen. Believe me, my mom wasn’t happy to hear I got arrested, even if it was for schools, and I got out in an hour.”

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By early 2009, it was clear the Great Recession was on its way to Hawai‘i. The summer’s headlines noted an American and local economy teetering on collapse. States across the Mainland were going in the hole to maintain basic services to the public, working with the Obama administration to bring something home from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The state was predicting a significant drop in funds to pay for state services, and the Lingle administration followed suit and suggested hiring freezes and furloughs for state workers. During a string of economic bad news including the continuing implosion of the housing market, bank bailouts, and a scrambling private sector, those announcements came with little bravura or foreshadowing of the pitched battle over public education to come.

The framers of our state constitution had tough times in mind. Since the Constitutional Convention of 1978, Hawai‘i’s state constitution has loosely required that the governor’s office and the legislature pass a balanced budget based on estimates by the state Council on Revenues. It is likely this requirement saved the state from the acute crisis faced in other states, where governmental services (everything from teacher and firefighter salaries to basic maintenance) were paid for through debt, and could have failed completely after the meltdown of the housing market but for federal stimulus funds. Throughout 2009, as the school year developed and the ironically named Furlough Fridays continued, various state agencies began to look increasingly ineffective, and the governor’s office became increasingly maligned. The balanced budget requirement became the familiar refrain of the Lingle administration, used to rationalize cutting state programs, staff, and the continuation of furloughs. As the dust settled from the year’s battles, the budget was also used to stoke the fire of an already antagonistic relationship between the administration and various unions, highlighting administrative priorities.

The first Furlough Friday was met with a good amount of surprise by many parents, many of whom were too busy working to notice the implications of school closure. In response, groups emerged. From the Windward side, Hawaii Education Matters began organizing an event on the first of these days off at Noelani School in Mānoa, alma mater of none other than the sitting president. Liam Skilling, a lawyer with two daughters in grade school, who would become one of the leaders of Save Our Schools explains, “I heard about it, got on KTUH (the popular UH radio station) and told everyone I could about the demonstrations.”

Organizers of the first event in Mānoa explained it as a “teach in.” After speeches by UH professors, a visiting celebrity and concerned parents, school busses with volunteer drivers from the bus drivers union took the parents, students and teachers to the State Capitol to continue the rally. There at the Capitol on a school day, the crowd got a musical treat by local superstar Jack Johnson, and waved red posters with the governor’s face that read “Lingle Day Care.”

Although well documented by local media, the furlough situation quickly became normative, the most recent debacle in a public school system that has been failing for a generation. Hawai‘i has done its part in a national divestment in public education. The nightly news plays pieces on the modern typicality of a middle class family in Hawai‘i, better than many, where mom works a full-time job, and dad works two in order to send their three boys to private school. What is most shocking about these bits on the evening news is that they are not shocking. Decades of elite flight where many families with means – and many without – have broken themselves economically to pay for an alternative to the state’s education system has left us with the present situation: cultural norms that reinforce a winner-take-all worldview. It has become tantamount to child abuse to send one’s children off to school with other kids who show up hungry and in need of subsidized lunches, kids who have complicated home lives, or God-forbid, Micronesians.

The right has won the culture war, spending a generation depicting government as bloated, inefficient and unnecessary, and advocacy groups like a union for teachers as bad for business. Last year an article in Honolulu Magazine asked, “Are Teachers Making the Grade?” with many readers politely saying no. The middle class has been jumping ship, a tragedy of the commons in an environment where educators and the classroom have become the final point of contact for many kids, where their problems coalesce before an unappreciated teacher.

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Winter break of 2009 came and went with little movement to end the furloughs. Through funding by The Learning Coalition, a well-funded education advocacy group, kids from Save Our Schools were on TV during primetime, deriding the governor’s statements in between segments on 60 Minutes and American Idol. The fight was far from over, it was merely smoldering.

Save Our Schools kept meeting on Furlough Fridays, at times with fewer than a dozen parents, but always with media coverage. At a Friday meeting, the SOS decided to have a multimedia art contest wherein students could express their feelings about the situation. Many of these pieces were then archived on the Save Our Schools website, and found a showing at a small gallery in Chinatown, then the lowest floor of the State Capitol. “Y’know, these kids are articulate,” says Skilling. “It didn’t start out as a mission to collect student artwork, but that’s what we did. I still have kids’ art all over my house.” In March, the artwork was slated to be viewed in the Capitol. In what was later appreciated as censorship by the state, the Department of Accounting and General Services (DAGS – the agency tasked with managing numerous state programs) told Skilling and the SOS parents the artwork would not be shown in the public building due to some content that was disparaging to the governor. As a few of the organizers of SOS are lawyers, they knew this was a clear violation of the state and federal government’s first amendment protections – an easy case. Within hours, mainland lawyers from the ACLU were phoning state legislators, and DAGS was figuring out how to retract. The student art went up that afternoon and stayed up through the month.

By April, the SOS parents were ramping up for a showdown with the governor. The famous stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” was experienced in reverse for these activists. After 13 Furlough Fridays, SOS organizers had met with various significant legislators, the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, and various members of the Board of Education. At each of those meetings they personally handed a policy maker a copy of the 1000 Student Voices art collection. With a few short months to the end of the school year, they wanted nothing less than a meeting with the big lady herself.

On their website and in letters to the governor, the SOS decided not to pull any punches. In an April 5, 2010 letter, they wrote:

We are dismayed by your stunning lack of progress on the Furlough Friday crisis. The children of Hawai’i have so far endured 13 Furlough Fridays, and nothing has been accomplished to bring this situation to an end or prevent it from continuing next year. … Until you do your constitutional duty to RESTORE THE FULL SCHOOL YEAR, we do NOT want to hear one more word about your ideas for (1.) allowing the governor to appoint the superintendent of schools; (2.) abolishing the Board of Education; or (3.) defining which of the Department of Education Employees are essential. You have had seven long years to reform the DOE. It is unconscionable that you are now, in the dying days of your governorship, trying to tie the resolution pertaining to Furlough Fridays to your own policy agenda.

As the Windward parents in Hawaii Education Matters were organizing as a non-profit advocacy group, Save Our Schools was holding the more radical front, taking the fight to the governor personally, this time in ALL CAPS.

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At this point, the SOS let go of polite diplomacy and took a more direct route. On a Wednesday afternoon, SOS parents requested a meeting and took the elevator up to the governor’s office. The sit-in was the culmination of the year, the inevitable fight between the parents and the governor that was foreshadowed in the fall. The governor never showed, and by that afternoon it was ON. After hearing from a staff member that the activists and their well-behaved children could stay, however if they leave the doors they could not come back, they spent the night on the surprisingly comfortable state couches. In true 21st Century fashion, we could follow the whole thing going down via Twitter and Facebook updates and new site postings. After seven days, by the close of business in April 13, it was clear there would be no meeting, and a few students and parents decided to stay there until they got their point across. A few days prior, eight citations were given by state sheriffs for trespassing. Now activists were being arrested.

Not everybody agreed with the SOS’s new tactic. Newspaper editorials claimed that historically, sit-in protests haven’t worked to garner favor with policy makers (not withstanding the American civil rights movement, of course). But as any buzzed, first-year liberal arts grad student might tell you, power concedes nothing without struggle. Considering what has not worked to fix public schools, like blaming teachers and their unions, test-driven curriculum, elite flight, pretending we can fix schools for free, threatening to break up the DOE and trade one bureaucracy for five, or the current ballot measure to alter the appointment of the board, staying overnight in a lobby on the fifth floor of the legislature was worth a shot.

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If we don’t think having the fewest number of instructional days in a school year in America is hitting rock bottom, consider that having 167 instructional days means our students are working less than their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa.
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Lingle’s response to the protests and arrests seems to have rested on two assumptions: first, that the voting public would see these people as misguided radicals; and second, that they would go away quietly. Neither of these assumptions was correct. Konrad Ng, a respected academic at UH, discusses the SOS’s use of Twitter, Facebook, and their website in a blog entry titled, “Save Our Schools: Tactical Media In the Digital Age.” He writes, “The case of SOS808 has profound consequences especially when we consider that during this episode and to date, Governor Lingle has kept no blog, Twitter feed, YouTube channel or active Facebook page. These moments highlight how digital activism will ensure a specific version of events in future drafts of a ‘controversial and highly contentious’ chapter in the history of Hawai‘i’s public education system.” The SOS website notes where the story was picked up by locations far away from the tradewinds, by The New York Times, The Times of India and Time magazine.

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As the dust settles from the nightly news reports, a skeptic wonders. Headlines note that July of 2010 showed an increase in tourism and subsequent revenue, a five-year high. Has the budget crisis, our Iraqi WMD that got us in this mess, been as dismal as predicted? Was the education of students in Hawai‘i used as a political tool to consolidate power in the executive branch of state government? More cynical questions arise: Have we, through either gross negligence or poor policy, created a public education system that funnels youth to our primary economic drivers in the military and retail tourism? Will we lose the middle class in Hawai‘i?

Although derided by the Lingle administration and some other key players, the grand teachable moment from the Save Our Schools protests is that it worked. Furloughs, protests and arrests were likely the catalyst for structural change that the state’s educational system needed. That maybe, like a meth-mouthed junkie on cable TV’s Intervention, the only thing that really works is hitting rock bottom. If we don’t think having the fewest number of instructional days in a school year in America is rock bottom, consider that having 167 instructional days means our students are working less than their counterparts in most of Europe, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa. On the other end of the spectrum are the kids in Japan – who, with their impressive and rigorous school year have proven to be good at nearly everything – including little league softball.

The SOS activists never got their meeting with Lingle, but they may win out in the end. After getting an audience with the other power brokers in state education, these activists would not go gently into that good night. Hawaii Education Matters is presently a supporter of televised debates amongst the gubernatorial candidates. Save Our Schools continues to be an advocacy group, working with other advocates to bring Hawai‘i’s schools back from the brink. Since the arrests, there has been good news. Hawai‘i is now in the top 10 states among states to receive Race to the Top funding. The teachers union unanimously agreed to the proposed alterations and upgrades to the system in order to qualify for the program. Presently the federal government is promising $75 million to the state to bring our classrooms technologically into the 21st Century and to update programs to meet needs. At the end of the legislative session, a bill was quietly passed that requires a minimum of 178 instructional days in the coming year, putting the state on a track that holds more promise than the previous decade’s set of policies.

Save Our Schools, by taking the hard line in a conversation about public education that was being taken over by the bully pulpit and cold economics has become a political force in the state. The organization is holding a candidate forum, actively updating its website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and with other organizations formed as a reaction to Furlough Fridays, has become a player in the 2010 election season. Vernadette Gonzales remembers, “We, the SOS and a few of the other organizations, created an atmosphere where these things could happen. We showed them that community support was there and real.” Still, she and the few others have to pay for their trespassing citations.