Hawaii voters again will be offered a choice on how a state board of education will be formulated. It's a decadal exercise for Hawaii to switch from an elected to an appointed school board and back to an elected school board.
Somewhere along the way, there will be claims that one version or the other provides greater accountability.
The arguments perpetuate myths.
The experience of Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty might be a model for accountability for public schools. Washington, D.C., provides for the mayor to be responsible for public schools in the district. Fenty in 2007 appointed as chancellor the reform advocate, Michelle Rhee, who installed new standards for teacher performance and pressed modernization of facilities.
She dismissed teachers and principals who fell short of the standards she set while promoting charter schools as an option to public schools where she was battling entrenched interests.
In D.C. last month, Fenty lost re-election to Council Chairman Vincent Gray. A key factor was Rhee's radical actions to challenge educators to do better or get out, and to install changes without asking the customers of the schools - parents - what they think.
With a school board, there may be an aura of accountability because a panel represents a diversity of views, a diversity that favors inaction. (If a board does not represent diverse points of view, there is no purpose to having one.) By design, boards, commissions and committees deflect responsibility, especially for decisions that turn sour.
D.C. law holds the mayor responsible for decisions made by his schools appointee. He's been turned out of office.
Even if Hawaii voters revert to an appointed school board, the panel mostly will shield the appointing authority - the governor - from being held responsible for the board's decisions and recommendations.
But Fenty's experience raises a question of whether communities demanding accountability really want school reform or just are looking for someone to blame. The failings of public schools in the United States have as much to do with social norms as with the quality of teachers and principals. Americans are notable for demanding their individual rights, less known to demand they be held to individual responsibility.
There are other scenarios. Recently in Singapore, there was discussion on updating the integration of curriculum from secondary to postsecondary schools. Curriculum integration assures that a graduate of a Singapore public school is able to handle course work in colleges and universities, unlike U.S. educational systems that can leave high school graduates unprepared for college-level academics.
In Singapore, the underlying philosophy for public education is that children need a foundation for learning, but as they mature, they are responsible for accomplishing their education. The first four years of elementary school are for implanting the basics of language and math, with grades 5 and 6 designated for "orientation" to the next stage.
Sixth-graders take a national Primary School Leaving Examination, which places them on educational tracks in secondary school. In secondary schools, there are three tracks for students expected to go on to higher education, with the fourth "Normal" track for students shunted into "technical" programs.
From an early age, the child is responsible for how far he or she will go, which translates to parents responsible for motivating the child.
It is a Confucian model. Education is a privilege, and the student is responsible for success in competitive exams that propel the student to a higher level of academic achievement.
Teacher quality and facilities make a difference in education, but so does individual responsibility.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.