HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In a high-profile snub that's raising eyebrows, the governor decided against appointing state schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi to a newly-formed task force charged with overhauling Hawaii's public school standards and testing.
The move appears to point to fissures between Gov. David Ige and Matayoshi, who has headed up the nation's 10th-largest and only statewide school district for six years.
The governor's task force has been billed as a diverse group of educators, lawmakers and other stakeholders charged with developing a blueprint for new national requirements aimed at changing how Hawaii public schools measure success, and bring the state in line with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the controversial, testing-focused No Child Left Behind Act.
Officials say ESSA will transform public education in Hawaii by giving more control back to the state to determine standards and school accountability.
"It's a big change and it's a lot more responsibility for the states, including Hawaii, and that's why I think this ESSA task force is so hugely important," said state Rep. Takashi Ohno, who is vice chairman of the House Education Committee and was appointed to the governor's task force.
Considering how critical the task force is being billed, lawmakers say it doesn't make sense to exclude the state schools superintendent.
Both supporters and critics of the Department of Education call Matayoshi's snub glaring.
"We've had so many concerns over curriculum. You want to make sure that you have every one on board that needs to be on board," said Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang, (R-Mililani Mauka, Mililani). "Our legislators, making sure that the superintendent is there and the governor and whoever else the governor chooses. But certainly you want the people that are the most in charge of these things to be a part of it."
The governor announced the creation of the task force on April 14.
According to a DOE spokeswoman, Matayoshi met with the governor about a week earlier and was made aware individuals were being asked to serve on it. However, she didn't learn about the application process until a news release went out April 28 with the names of the individuals who were appointed.
"There was no discussion with the superintendent regarding her involvement," DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said.
Matayoshi has been widely praised during her tenure for bolstering student achievement, strengthening standards, and streamlining departmental processes. It was under Matayoshi that Hawaii garnered national attention for securing a $75 million Race to the Top grant. Despite early missteps, Hawaii has subsequently seen progress on key reforms, and has been applauded by the U.S. Department of Education for its work.
But Matayoshi has also attracted criticism, including for the state's handling of hot classrooms last summer and over a new performance system for teachers.
State Rep. Bob McDermott, whose district includes Ewa and Ewa Beach, has publicly questioned Matayoshi's leadership and said Tuesday he supports the decision not to appoint her to the governor's task force.
"I think the governor, if he didn't appoint her, is doing the right thing because he's turning the page, turning the chapter and moving towards the future. We need educators on there. We have great teachers, great principals. We don't need another attorney, which is what she is by trade. She's an attorney," he said.
McDermott also suggested that Matayoshi's time as the head of Hawaii schools is coming to a close.
The Board of Education, and not the governor, is charged with hiring and firing the superintendent. But the executive branch certainly holds political sway with BOE members, who are appointed by the governor.
Matayoshi, the first non-educator to head up Hawaii schools in modern times, has consistently earned top ratings in annual performance evaluations by the Board of Education.
DOE to play role
The governor's office said Tuesday that the ESSA task force will be responsible for assessing the current public school system and identifying areas of need.
"The ESSA team consists of a cross section of school-level personnel who work on the front line, as well as a parent of a public school student,"
said Jodi Leong, Ige's Director of Communications.
Leong stressed that the DOE will play a role on the task force.
"There are six team members representing the Department of Education, including one complex area superintendent and one education specialist, two teachers and two principals," she said.
Other members of the task force include the president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Co., the CEO of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and the executive director of the Education Institute of Hawaii, a policy group that's sometimes been at odds with the DOE on key issues.
According to a recent report, at least one other state -- Alabama -- has set up a gubernatorial task force to plan for ESSA changes. For the Alabama committee, the state superintendent got to select two vice chairs to participate.
The governor's office said the ESSA team's chairperson has offered to meet with the superintendent and BOE chairman following each ESSA meeting to keep them informed, share information and collaborate.
Task force duplicating DOE work?
The task force comes as the DOE and Board of Education, which have ultimate authority over public education, work on their own plan for implementing ESSA.
"When U.S. Congress took action on ESSA we began analyzing ESSA and sharing information with the board, Legislature, our employees and the public," schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said, in a statement issued to Hawaii News Now.
"So far, we've engaged with more than 150 of our principals and will continue to meet with stakeholders. We look forward to learning more about the governor's plans and coordinating efforts to advance education for our keiki."
It's unclear how any recommendations that come out of the task force would marry up with the DOE's own plan, or whether the task force would seek instead seek legislation in the upcoming session.
Ohno, the task force member, said he's hopeful that the parallel work being done to meet the requirements of the new federal law will ultimately result in positive change.
"I still believe that the Department of Education and Kathy Matayoshi's work will be very front and center as we discuss what our schools will look like," Ohno said.
Big changes ahead
Lawmakers say regardless of the composition of the task force, they see the changes ESSA will bring as an opportunity to make positive changes in Hawaii schools.
"What ESSA does is it allows the state's to have a lot more leeway to decide what tests to use, how they're going to gauge the progress among the students and how they'll judge the schools," Ohno said. "We'll have a way that gauges progress in Hawaii that is true to our beliefs and our culture and our students."
Chang agreed, adding that the new law recognizes the diversity of Hawaii's schools and its student body.
"Each child is different, each classroom is different and each community is different," she said. "It's making sure that teacher's can teach to that -- that we
have certain standards that everyone needs to follow. We need to make sure that we're really addressing our local needs."