At Noelani Elementary, the small school near Honolulu where President Obama learned to read and write, the next generation of Hawaii's leaders learned a new word this week: "furlough."
The Noelani students joined nearly 170,000 other children across Hawaii whose teachers on Friday began an unprecedented state furlough program that will close classrooms 34 days over the next two years. The "furlough Fridays" are part of a controversial effort by Gov. Linda Lingle to deal with a projected budget deficit of nearly $1 billion. The cost-cutting measure has angered parents, lawmakers and children. Popular musician and Hawaii public school graduate Jack Johnson sang at a rally Friday morning at the state Capitol to protest the furloughs. During the rally, parents handed a petition bearing thousands of signatures protesting the furloughs to the governor, whose office is on the fifth floor of the state Capitol.
Lingle's two-year contract with the teachers union and its 13,000 members amounts to a 7.9% pay cut. The bulk of the union's teachers will have 17 furlough days a year, giving Hawaii the shortest school year in the nation. "It's completely Draconian," says Vernadette Gonzalez, whose 5-year-old daughter, Inez Anderson, is a kindergartner at Noelani. "People are shocked when they hear that this was allowed, or even considered as a sane solution to the budget crisis." Gonzalez fears that students will not be able to make up for the lost school time, noting that teachers are struggling to adapt their lesson plans. "It's not only passing on the cost to the parents but to the kids," she said. "They're getting a second-rate education."
Fears about how the furlough will affect learning prompted two lawsuits in federal court earlier in the week. Attorneys representing special education students sought to block the furloughs but U.S. District Judge David Ezra denied their motions, saying on Thursday that the last-minute decision would create chaos. But Ezra also plans to hear further arguments Nov. 5.
For many working parents, the immediate problem was what to do with their children when their schools were shuttered. At the time the furloughs were announced, on Sept. 21, as part of a contract settlement between the state and its public teachers union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, community day-care providers scrambled to create space for an expected onslaught. But on the eve of the first furlough, day-care enrollment was lower than anticipated. At $25 to $50 a day, providers speculated that the cost for families, especially those with more than one child, might be too great. Some working parents appeared to rely on family members to care for their kids. Others took the day off to be with their children. And this being Hawaii, a lot of older students went to the beach.
Furloughs were the budget-gap solution of choice for Lingle, a tough-talking Republican. Her administration also hopes to narrow the deficit with a similar furlough program agreed to this week with the state's largest public worker union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association. On the same day as the schools were closed, government offices, including the state's unemployment office, were shuttered. A complicated schedule closes numerous state offices two Fridays a month.
State Rep. Lyla Berg, a former public school principal in Hawaii, said union, state education officials and the governor do not appear motivated to find another solution to the furloughs. At a recent briefing on the subject with the state lawmakers, it seemed that education and union officials were not interested in "assessing and correcting inefficiencies, waste, duplication and misuse of existing monies," said Berg, a Democrat and vice-chair of the Education Committee. "As a former teacher and middle school principal, I personally find the furlough alternative completely unacceptable," Berg said. "I hold all three parties responsible for not putting the educational, social, emotional, and future well-being of our children and our society in the center of their deliberations. The health, safety, and educational interests of our children should always come first."