Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Pinagat Si Unda'ut Put Ineskuela

Testimony By Robert A. Underwood
Before the Guam Legislature
On the State of Guam\'s Educational System
Monday, July 17, 2006

Good Morning Members of the Guam Legislature. I come before you this morning to testify on an important educational matter- the matter of good governance. Good governance establishes the appropriate balance between community and administrative control over our schools and the future of quality education on our island. I come before you as a concerned citizen and long-time educator as well as former Member of Congress and an elected member of the Territorial School Board from 1978-1982. I am also running for Governor of Guam, and while it is difficult to separate roles here, I come here to express my ideas as a long time educator rather than as candidate for Governor. There is already too much partisan politics in education.

In our American system of governance, school systems were founded by communities before there were state governments. Unlike other countries in the world, educational systems in the U.S. are not administrative agencies of the central government. We pride ourselves on the fact that under the U.S. Constitution, the states control the school systems and not the federal government. Within states, we generally try to provide for school districts with autonomous boards and provide autonomous funding systems. This is the ideal even though we come up short in reality. But we still strive for the ideal.

When the Organic Act was changed by Congressman Ben Blaz to allow the Guam Legislature to pass laws that limited the role of the Governor in educational matters, we all supported it. This simple properly balanced the nature of authority over the school system. It was designed not to punish the Governor, but instead to give the community more of a say in how schools were operated. This was based in large measure on the previous experiences of the Boards of Education that failed to acquire new authority despite the efforts by the Guam Legislature to grant them stronger powers. I know because I was there when the sitting Governor told us, "You are supposed to recommend someone to be Director of Education, then he added; this is the name I will accept." Previous to that we were seen as a rubber stamp body, but eventually they even took away the rubber stamp.

Since the amendment of the Organic Act, we have had several attempts to rewrite the nature of the authority of the school board as well as how we select the members of the school board. We have had Boards entirely selected by the Governor, we have had an attempt to establish multiple Boards, we have had administrative control returned entirely to the Governor and then taken back. This confused mess that we have is not caused entirely by politicians and elected officials who are seeking to enhance their authority. They sure add to it and they make things worst, but they are not the cause of it. We expect some elected officials to continue to seek greater authority. GPSS is a plum agency. A lack of funding and the inability to translate "education is a priority" as a slogan into the policy reality of "schools really do come first" also contributes to the confusion.

But the real source of confusion is that we have not stated openly who we think should be in charge of education. Let me state unequivocally my belief that it is the community that should be in charge of education. In the American system of government, that means an elected school board accountable to the people and with sufficient authority to make sure that the school system is functioning. The Governor has a role in the process because he is the administrative head of the Government of Guam and he has a leadership role in the community. He can engage the Board and he should be talking to them regularly, but the Board must hold the responsibility and be held accountable for their actions.

If we do not like the Board, we elect a new Board or attempt to remove them. There was a failed attempt to do so earlier this year and we have the opportunity to elect new members in November. If they have made a real mess of things, then the Legislature can step in and run it themselves in conjunction with the Governor but only on an ad hoc basis until the problem is solved. This is not without precedent but happens only very rarely. But in no instance, should we turn the clock back to take away the authority of the Board by devising a new system that would take us back to the days when the Governor ran the school system.

This is why Bill 313 needs to be seriously revised if it is going to contribute to community control of education. As introduced, it seeks to eliminate the most significant decision any Education Board can make and that is the selection of the Superintendent. It was the controversy over this very issue that lead to the amending of the Organic Act. Speaking as a former Board member, as a long time educator, as an amender of other portions of the Organic Act and even as a potential Governor, this is not a good idea. An educational superintendent should be an honored position and should function as the chief implementer of Board policies as well as exercise administrative control over the system. He or she cannot do that if the position is primarily political and secondarily professional.

On the matter of Board composition, I agree that it is probably best to move to at large voting for school board membership as well as increase their stipend. This might secure a wider range of candidates. Perhaps a hybrid system of three at large and four through districting may also work. Any system that makes the Board responsible to the community in a direct fashion will work and the introduction of at large membership may make it stronger. Providing for a system that is partially selected by the Governor is again a step backwards. We have been down that road before.

On the matter of Board authority over federal programs, we should be moving towards the direction of enhancing their authority rather than seeking to limit it. They made an inappropriate decision regarding a federal grant earlier this year and this decision has been regularly used to demonstrate why they should have no role in the management of federal grants. The decision has been corrected but the discussion goes on because U.S. DOE officials have threatened withholding funds. By all means, do everything that we can to keep the funds flowing and make Uncle Sam happy, but make sure that we know the real sticking point. And if this decision was the problem, it seems to me that it has been unstuck.

Based on media reports, you have reached a compromise with the some federal government officials in order to keep federal funding going. It is a compromise that looks promising but continues to avoid the question and delays the inevitable conflicts. It is more crisis management that has resulted in crisis legislation. The round tables are excellent venues for conversation and even occasional crisis management, but they have become the substitute for dealing with difficult issues. I congratulate the leadership of the Legislature on this matter, but I do not think we have solved the problem just yet. We may have averted another crisis, but only temporarily.

Taking the Board out of oversight regarding federally-funded programs is another slap at the face of community control. Federal program support of curricular programs and local mandates are intertwined. You cannot say that a locally funded reading program can be mandated by the Board but that federally-supported programs must go on autonomously. It just doesn\'t work that way. It is a time honored principle—ask any educator that federal programs supplement and do not supplant. It is in federal law.

Besides, most federal programs require some type of Board approval. Board approval is tantamount to community approval and taking them out of the process may make a couple federal officials happy but it does nothing for community review, acceptance and support. This is why most federal programs require Board approval or consent.

If the general financial management of GPSS is in question, I thought that a Chief Financial Officer was hired to take care of these issues. It seems to me that we ought to give the CFO a chance to work out some of these matters. Financial management issues are not really Board issues. They are administrative issues and the roots of the problem lie in many different places, but we seem to focus only on the Board. Apparently, they make the most convenient target at this time perhaps because of some unpopular decisions.

A system of governance is about putting in place a series of beliefs about the appropriate balance of authority and control between various instrumentalities. It is not about arguing over decisions that we disagree with. Education is the single most important business of the public. It is the basis of our obligation to the next generation. It is the way that we distribute opportunity, encourage the fulfillment of individual potential, grow the economy, encourage civic participation and good citizenship. It seems entirely appropriate that in assessing the balance between control by the community (as reflected in the Board) and administrative agencies, that we err on the side of the community. It may not be tidy and we may falter from time to time, but I take the people over government any day of the week.

Our goal and responsibility is ensuring that every child has the benefit of the highest quality education. Quality education is the single most important investment we can make in our island\'s future.

As a life-long educator, I have watched the educational system be a part in a tug of war between politicians. Never has the sentiment of removing politics out of education ever been more appropriate. As an educator, I cannot accept the debacles of recent weeks. It has to change. As responsible adults, we owe it to ourselves and our children to move our educational system forward. # # #

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