Charter Schools in Hawaii:
A New Beginning?
By Jack Kelly
There is a lot of talk
these days about our schools here in Hawai'i, most of it negative. Low test
scores, overcrowded classrooms, aging facilitates, and a continued lack of funding
from the legislature are all elements of the ongoing discourse.
There are those, however, including State House Speaker Calvin Say, who believe that Hawaii's schools are on the right track.
In early October, Governor Linda Lingle, who campaigned heavily on the educational issue, unveiled her blueprint for major educational reform at the Capitol in Honolulu.
Looking over the crowd in attendance, some observers commented that it didn't seem that all the stakeholders in the community were present.
AP writer Bruce Dunford quoted Senate President Robert Bunda as saying his office had received no notice of the forum. Lingle's senior advisor, Randy Roth, acknowledged that no notice was given to the public or news media about the forum.
Lingle used the event to announce the formation of a 22-member group of educators, community leaders and concerned residents to be known as CARE, the Citizens to Achieve Reform in Education.
"Our CARE Committee is a historic opportunity to work together on issues that will truly change education for our children," says Lingle.
"I consider this to be the most important group I have convened because it will result in life-time achievement for Hawaii's students and our entire community."
In response to criticism from legislative leaders, Lingle responded, "it (CARE) certainly does not include all the stakeholders and that's by design. You don't see politicians from both parties of the legislature here. You don't see Department of Education representatives. It's not because we don't respect them, but clearly our goal is to achieve something here that the stakeholders may not agree with, not today, and maybe not forever. Our effort is about children, not about taking care of the stakeholders."
State Representative Roy Takumi, Chairman of the House committee on Education said, "I am disappointed. It's not about pleasing stakeholders, it's about involving stakeholders."
So even though the purpose of the group is to revamp an educational system in which all Hawaii's citizens have a stake, only the handpicked few will have a voice in developing the plan.
House speaker Calvin Say has commented, "Because Lingle didn't include all the "stakeholders" on her citizens committee developing the education reform plan, the Legislature will have to seek information statewide from all parties."
One has to question whether Lingle's highly orchestrated approach qualifies as public process. Obviously Say thinks it doesn't.
According to Lingle, "CARE will work toward refining issues relating to decentralizing Hawaii's education system to give more authority and subsequently more accountability to school principals and teachers. Part of the effort will include giving the people of Hawai'i the opportunity to decide on whether to have local school boards that can better meet the specific education needs of different communities.
"We're running a campaign, a campaign for kids," said the Governor, as she described her vision for achieving reform in education. "We're creating a grassroots movement to first inform and educate the public about why the current system doesn't work, and what the people can do to gain control of their schools so that their children can excel. It simply is not acceptable that our state ranks at or near the bottom of numerous education rankings."
New Century Charter Schools
The concept of more local control over schools in Hawai'i is a popular one but there is nothing unique about it.
In fact, it's already been done.
In 1999 the legislature gave birth to the Charter School movement in Hawai'i. It created a process allowing existing public schools and new schools to be established as "New Century Charter Schools."
A rush of applications came forward with the bulk of new charter schools being implemented here on Hawai'i Island.
Senate Bill 1501 states the philosophy behind the charter school.
"The legislature finds that the expansion of public schools has outgrown the ability of the system to provide flexibility for individual schools to develop and implement innovative instructional and administrative frameworks which best serve the needs of their students," wrote the legislature.
"Charter schools enable educators to do this by injecting local control and limited competition into the public system. Teachers, administrators, or local associations can organize to create autonomous, performance oriented schools."
The legislature found that as long as a public school complies with the requirements that no tuition be charged, that its admissions policies are non-discriminatory and that it complies with statewide performance standards, a school should be free from requirements that inhibit its ability to provide educational services to its students.
New Century Charter Schools have their own local school boards and operate independent educational programs.
The consensus of our lawmakers was that by defining this new approach to education the state would dramatically improve its educational standards for the twenty first century.
John Thatcher is a teacher, CEO of Connections Charter School in Hilo and past president of Hawai'i Charter Schools Network. "Charter schools embody all the elements the administration is seeking," he says. "We already are what they are looking for."
Libby Oshiyama, Principal of Wai Ola "Waters of Life" Charter School agrees, "Charter schools are the future . . . the fact is that U.S. public schools are the most antiquated and undemocratic public institution in the country. There is much talk now about educational reform. The major ways that you can change an institution are to change the roles, rules and responsibilities, and that's what charter schools do - putting much more responsibility in the community. Working for change is difficult with people, as we have in the DOE and BOE, who have a vested interest in things staying just the way they are."
Although the charter school legislation opened up the field for the independence movement, the legislature at the same time tied the hands of the schools due to weak legislation. Several subsequent bills have been necessary to iron out the wrinkles and meanwhile start-up schools have been suffering.
According to Anna Varghese, director of external affairs for the Washington D.C.- based Center for Education Reform, Hawaii's charter school law is one of the worst in the nation, earning a "D" when graded on such things as the number of charter schools allowed and the amount of freedom and funding they get.
The Center graded schools on a 50-point scale covering 10 criteria, with the highest scores given to states that made it easier to start and maintain charter schools.
Hawaii's grade was dragged down by several factors, including the fact that the law defines only one chartering authority, the Board of Education, and caps the number of schools allowed at 25. "Some states rig the system so much that it suffocates the start-ups to the extent that they are destined to fail," said Todd Ziebarth, policy analyst for Education Commission of the States.
Hawaii's New Century Charter Schools have the ability, under the legislation developed to create them, to fulfill all the goals now touted by the Lingle administration. However, the road to success for these schools has been, and continues to be, a rocky one. Although quasi-independence has been achieved, the purse strings are still held by the State Department of Education (DOE) and most of the bumps in the road have been created by inadequate funding and support from that department.
Some frustrated charter school representatives feel that the DOE has been actively thwarting the progress of charter schools.
Since the inception of the charter school law, funding, which is controlled by the DOE, has been a problem. According to the present law, the schools are to receive a per-pupil allocation based on the overall student allocation statewide. But the overall assistance is less per student for charter schools due to the expenses that have to be paid out of that allocation.
"When you have a school that is running on a per-pupil allowance with no allocations for facilities, grounds, buildings, furnishings, infrastructure or maintenance, how can you expect them to survive?" says Oshiyama.
In order to make up the difference between the per-pupil allowance and the costs of running a school, charter schools must actively fundraise and pursue grants. Most schools are on sites that charge relatively low rent, but they have very little control over how long they can stay in these sites because the owners often rented to the charter school in the first place as a stopgap measure.
"The only thing that kept the charter schools open the last two years was federal grants, and now those are over," says Oshiyama.
There were three-year packages for charter schools available from the federal government for start-up programs starting in 1999. Administration of those funds was also controlled by DOE, and late payments to the schools by the State have caused much despair for administrators, parents and students.
Special education is another area where the state has let funding of charters fall short.
"The state is shortchanging special education students in charter schools by paying only for their teachers and not their costs," says Thatcher. "It's a civil rights violation, in my opinion."
"I have received money for special education positions, but haven't received a penny for desks, chairs, lights, telephone, I don't have any operational funding," says Steve Hirakami, Director of Hawai'i Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa.
Thatcher's school, Connections, went to court to challenge how allocations were being distributed by the state.
State Auditor Marion Higa countered that when the legislature amended the Charter Schools law in 2002, they instructed the department to divide up the programs for regular education students but left funding for special education students off the list. "It was not our choice, she said. "It was in the law."
The Connections lawsuit ended with a favorable settlement for the school and had the effect of benefiting the charter school movement in general as essential agreements were made regarding funding, access to grants, delivery of services and school autonomy, according to Thatcher.
Deputy Attorney General Russell Suzuki, counsel for the DOE, noted that all these funding problems arose because the law was not specific enough on how to handle these matters.
Schools: A New Twist
Another law passed in 2002 created another class of charter schools called New Century "Conversion" Charter Schools.
The law allowed for non-profit organizations to manage and operate a charter school as a division of the non-profit. The conversion school then is funded by the non-profit at the rate of $1 for every $4 the state puts in. The law allows for twenty-five more charter schools of this type.
Some say this law was passed specifically in order to let Kamehameha Schools use this vehicle to expand its educational reach into the Hawaiian community. If so, it's working well.
Waimea Middle School on Hawai'i Island recently was the first public school to convert to charter under this program.
Kamehameha Schools itself funds the program but is not directly involved.
A separate non-profit, the Ho'okako'o Corp. oversees the Ho'olako Like Program that has been created as one of several "Puahi's Legacy Lives" initiatives within the Kamehameha Schools structure.
The program was responsible for allocating $655,000 to eight charter schools for this year, as well as becoming a partner at Waimea School.
Sharlene Chun-Lum, project manager for the Puahi's Legacy Lives initiatives says, "in terms of what we are looking for, we want to see a high percentage of Hawaiian children, 50% or more, in schools attempting to teach a Hawaiian focused, Hawaiian based program. It doesn't have to be an immersion school."
Lynn Fallin, Executive Director of Ho'okako'o Corp. feels the program reaches the communities with the most need for assistance.
"Our target is communities of high socio-economic need, and often those communities will also have higher populations of Hawaiian children. Often it is a natural alignment."
Two schools on Molokai and one on Kauai are studying whether to convert and have applied for federal planning grants to help explore the option. "We're hoping they will make the decision to convert," says Fallin.
Power Struggle Continues
Allocations have been going up yearly for the charter schools and conditions would have seemed to have improved, but for every step forward it seems the schools have to take two steps back.
Reacting to the furor between the charter schools and the Department of Education, the legislature again took on the issue in its 2003 session. The result, known as Act 203, amends the charter school law in three specific ways. It establishes a funding formula for charter schools, establishes the charter school administrative office to be administratively attached to the DOE and provides for an executive director and staff for that office.
The act mandates equal footing for charter schools in allocations of state funds as well as federal funds. It includes a per-pupil allocation for special education students but lacks funding for special education services. It also addresses the historic delays in payments to the schools by mandating timely release of funds to the schools. The act mandates that the position of executive director shall be appointed by the BOE based upon the recommendations of an organization of charter schools or from a list of nominees submitted by the charter schools. The Hawai'i Charter School Network has formed to act as a voice for the schools and has presented a recommendation for the post.
As well, the legislature seems to take a hard look at the past history of this struggle in mandating that the Department of Education, through the board and its superintendent, "shall provide any other information and technical assistance upon request necessary to support the establishment and expansion of new century charter schools."
As the Board of Education met on October 16, so did the Charter School Network, which held its annual convention in Honolulu.
"We're at a crossroads," said Thatcher. "We've given them our recommendation and what happens from here could determine the fate of Charter Schools. We aren't about any particular political agenda. We're here for the students."
The Board, in a press release after their Friday meeting, commented that the "screening committee" had submitted only one name. The Board chose to extend the time for the selection of the executive director rather than accept the Charter School Network's nominee.
"The Board of Education wants to honor the process, and move forward toward a timely appointment. So far, the screening process has not followed the intent nor the letter of the law," said BOE Chairperson Herbert Watanabe. "While extending the period creates delay in the opening of the Charter School Administrative Office, the hiring of an executive director must be done properly and legally, with fair consideration for all qualified applicants."
"The law says that the Board shall appoint the executive director based on the recommendations of an organization of charter schools or from a list of nominees submitted by charter schools," says Thatcher, who is on the nominating committee for the Network.
"As a bonafide organization of charter schools we have conducted our study and have come with a single nominee. The Board wants to see more candidates. They feel the process demands more than one candidate but we disagree. We've already performed the screening process. We should find out in a few days. If the Board chooses someone other than our nominee, that violates the statute."
The battle goes on.
If the Lingle Administration wants to affect immediate change in the system, Thatcher and others contend, it would do well to champion the efforts of the charter movement and demand performance from the BOE and the Department of behalf of the state's charter schools. Expanding the law to allow for more charter schools, they say, and providing encouragement through a more efficient process of funding are pragmatic approaches to addressing the needs of Hawaii's families.
Indeed, if we follow Lingle's logic down the line, the ultimate goal would be to convert all the schools to charter schools, embracing the wider community to become involved with their schools, maintain local control over curriculum and encourage experimentation and culturally meaningful educational models. Then we will have witnessed a revolution in education in Hawaii. In this revolution everybody can come out a winner.