Decentralizing Hawaii’s Public School System

Published December 1, 2003

Hawaii’s current education system is highly centralized, despite the dispersed geographic nature of a multi-island state and the unique needs of individual communities.

Hawaii’s single-district system uses a funding methodology called the Enrollment Ratio Formula (ERF). Amounts are allotted to schools based on enrollment and student types, which correlates into numbers of staff, such as teachers, paraprofessionals, and librarians. ERF restricts a principal’s control over funds and limits decision-making on number and type of staff, money spent for teacher training, books, and curriculum.

As a comparison, the Houston Independent School District is very similar to Hawaii’s Department of Education. Houston has 288 schools, 208,672 students, and a $1.16 billion budget, resulting in a per-pupil expenditure of $5,558. Hawaii’s public school system has 261 schools, 180,000 students, and a $1.5 billion budget, resulting in a per-pupil expenditure of $8,333.

Hawaii appropriates staff rather than dollars under ERF, while Houston employs a Weighted Student Formula (WSF), which allows funds to flow directly to individual schools. Houston principals control 58.6 percent of their budget, while Hawaii principals control only 4 percent of theirs.

Under the WSF system, which is used by Edmonton and Seattle as well as Houston, money goes directly to benefit individual schools. Funds are “block granted” to each school on a per-student allocation basis and weighted to reflect the number of “categorical” funds for which students qualify. Students may choose any school they like within the district, and the funding follows the child.

If Hawaii adopted that organizational model, the statewide agency would monitor local agencies, a factor now missing in Hawaii’s centralized system. Rather than relying on Inspector Generals and surveillance staff in a top-down model, decentralized districts use an “exceptions” approach, comparing current outcomes with past performance and intervening only when problems arise.

Under WSF, principals would become the CEOs of their schools. Budgetary autonomy at the school level would result in an increased number of employees reporting directly to the individual school principal instead of a central office.

Under the WSF system, parents would choose where their student attends school. Funding attached to the individual student would give parents the leverage needed to demand quality performance. If an individual school does not provide customer satisfaction, the consumer can shop for a better service provider.

Laura Brown is education researcher and writer with Hawaii Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

A fuller discussion of the issues involved in decentralizing Hawaii’s public education system is provided in the June 2003 article, “Making Public Schools Work,” by Laura Brown in Issue #5 of In Pursuit of… from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, online at