Charter school popularity rising

Equitable funding still a bone of contention

by Nancy Cook Lauer
Stephens Honolulu Bureau

HONOLULU -- Charter schools have made great progress since a law gave them more autonomy, but advocates for the schools want legislators to make their funding more equitable and remove the cap limiting how many new schools can be created.

The Senate Education Committee heard a 21/2-hour status report Thursday. Most participants praised the Legislature for creating a charter school review panel to oversee the formation and operation of charter schools, saying the new flexibility is leading to record high achievement by charter school students.

"This past year, you really took a giant, courageous move forward," said Maunalei Love, charter school interim director, who said she's visited all but two of the state's 28 charter schools this year. "The schools are doing well, even those which had been having some problems."

Committee Chairman Norman Sakamoto said after the meeting he is prepared to push for more money and more flexibility in the number of new schools -- if all parties involved can begin by agreeing what the current funding is.

"I want to continue to press for fair and equitable funding," said Sakamoto, D-Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake. "But we need to be all on the same page."

It's difficult to compare per-pupil funding between traditional public schools and charter schools because federal money plays a part in the traditional public schools. Also, schools share some funding categories, such as for special education, and buy back services from the Department of Education.

There have been improvements in funding, but charter school students are still woefully underfunded compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools, said John Thatcher, principal of Connections New Century Public Charter School in Hilo and former president of the Hawaii Charter School Network.

He said traditional schools got about $13,500 per pupil this year, compared to $8,100 per pupil for charter students. Even though charter schools and the DOE are "on the verge of solving problems that have plagued us from our beginnings," Thatcher said budgets get cut in the governor's Office of Budget and Finance.

"We are caught in the crossfire between political battles that place sound financial planning on the back burner," Thatcher said. "This is not a budget that trims the fat. This is a budget that cuts away muscle and bone, and leaves families that choose the charter option shortchanged."

Charter school advocates also want the Legislature to lift the cap on how many new "start-up" schools can be created. Current law allows one new school for each existing charter school that achieves national accreditation. That was three this year, Thatcher said, and could be two or three next year.

Love said 15 of the 40 states that have charter schools don't cap the number. Hawaii currently has 6,131 students in the 28 charter schools.

"The demand for charter schools is showing no sign of letting up," Love said.

Nancy Cook Lauer can be reached at


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