by Frances Nuar 

They say imitation is the best form of flattery; in some cases it’s also the smartest option. Take the latest work by Governor Rick Scott in Florida. He faces very similar challenges to what Hawaii is experiencing, so it would behoove us to watch and learn.

 

In the last few weeks Gov. Scott spearheaded two very controversial initiatives. One was the first bill he signed into law, which would create merit based pay for teachers as well as end tenure for new hires. The second lies in his rejection of $2.4 billion in federal funding for high speed rail in Florida.

 

Supporters of the education bill attest that a merit-based salary structure will attract and maintain the best teachers, while eliminating teacher tenure will level the playing field with the private sector– teachers will have to prove themselves effective, and school officials will finally be able to fire bad teachers.

 

According to Gov. Scott: “We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher.”

 

The dismal state of Hawaii’s education system desperately needs an overhaul. What has been done in the past clearly does not work. Students in Hawaii consistently score significantly lower than average on national assessments across the board: in math, science, reading, and writing. Yet Hawaii pays over $14,000 per student, one of the highest in the nation, and has the same pupil/teacher ratio as the national average. Somewhere the system itself is failing the children.

 

While no one can claim the system doesn’t need fixing, not everyone agrees that Florida’s solutions are best.

 

Some teachers hold that standardized testing is both ineffective in terms of ensuring students learn, and a poor incentive structure for teachers, some of whom may focus more on getting students to pass tests rather than learn how to think.  Some contend that moving to an “ability based” system of learning in which children move forward in school based on their learning ability rather than age would be more beneficial to both students and teachers.

 

Everyone can agree a problem is there–now what is needed is for real solutions to be taken.

 

The second controversial measure was the refusal of federal funding for Florida’s high speed rail project–to the tune of $2.4 billion. After assessing the project, and despite strong opposition to continue with it from those who stood to gain financially, Gov. Scott chose not to go forward with the rail project for three reasons: 1.) Cost overruns could mean an additional $3 billion in taxes for Florida taxpayers, 2.) Ridership and revenue projections do not mirror historic realities, and would likely equate to millions of dollars per year in subsidies, and 3.) If the project became too costly and shut down, Florida would have to return its federal funding to Washington, D.C., a logistical nightmare.  The Florida supreme court unanimously confirmed Gov. Scott’s authority to reject the funding.

 

His analysis has striking similarities to Hawaii’s own elevated rail proposal: the costs of Honolulu rail keep escalating, to the current tune of $5.5 billion, though a state-sponsored independent review tagged the cost at $7 billion.  Taxpayers on Oahu already pay a 0.5 percent surcharge on the General Excise tax to pay for the rail, and cost overruns are almost definite, which will equate to higher taxes as the rail is subsidized. Little has been done to explore alternative traffic options such as Managed Lane Alternatives, HOT lanes, and Bus Rapid Transit. Not to mention the particular challenges found in Hawaii when building rail: the many historic properties and lua kupapa’u, Native Hawaiian burial sites, that will be affected, and which are protected by strict laws. A lawsuit has just been brought against the city citing US Code 303 that “The U.S. Department of Transportation DOT may not approve the use (or even have a significant visual or noise impact) of a historic property or native burial site unless a determination is made that “there is no feasible and prudent avoidance alternative” to such use.”

 

In his rejection letter to Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Gov. Scott requested the funds be used for “higher yield” projects, citing specific examples of projects that would not only create more jobs, but that would be a better investment overall for the state. Real traffic solutions, at a sustainable cost.

 

The federal government has promised Hawaii $1.55 billion in transit funding, yet it remains unclear whether these funds will definitely come through. Like Florida, Hawaii should look for alternative solutions to the traffic issue rather than plow forward with a poorly thought out rail project which will do little to alleviate traffic, and much to increase the cost of living in paradise.