Lawmakers lectured by charter school reps

Proponents slam BOE as 'incompetent, oppressive'

by Nancy Cook Lauer
Stephens Honolulu Bureau

HONOLULU -- The power struggle between the Board of Education and the state's charter schools played out again Thursday before the House Finance Committee.

Committee Chairman Marcus Oshiro, D-Wahiawa, had killed the House version of a bill giving the schools more independence last month. Thursday evening he deferred the Senate version, SB 603, but promised to bring it for a vote next week, before the deadline to move it out of the House.

Charter school organizers and dozens of students from most of the state's eight islands crowded into the small committee room to show their support for more independence for charter schools. The only opposition came from the Board of Education and two unions.

"The actions of (the BOE) have been to stifle the very nature of charter schools as centers of innovation," said David Rizor, education director for Volcano School of Arts and Sciences. "Making the system work requires a much more hands-off approach with an oversight group committed to promoting success through innovation."

John Thatcher, coordinator of Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, was even more blunt.

"Our charter schools have struggled for seven years under the shackles of incompetent, oppressive leadership," Thatcher said.

The number of schools could almost double under a more aggressive charter school leadership, as there are open slots for three new startup charter schools and more than 20 that can convert from traditional public schools.

But infighting between the BOE and charter schools has led to delays in the approval process, the firing of the charter school administrator and accusations of micromanagement.

BOE Chairwoman Karen Knudsen said in written testimony that the transfer of power is premature and puts the BOE in the position of accountability without authority. She also worried about a conflict of interest.

"Panel members are largely made up of individuals or charter schools who have direct involvement in charter schools and who may be given responsibility to oversee, evaluate and determine whether to revoke charters," Knudsen said.

BOE member Cec Heftel, a dissenter to the majority, told the committee that "the Board of Education doesn't want to give up control," but the bill will "solve the problem if the BOE can't interfere with the charter schools."

The Hawaii State Teachers Association and the Hawaii Government Employees Association said giving the Charter School Review Panel the authority to approve and revoke charters appeared unconstitutional.

"We are ambivalent whether a volunteer panel, many of whom have full-time jobs, will be able to devote the appropriate amount of time, focus, energy and resources necessary to carry out all the duties of the charter school authorizer, from approving new charters and ensuring accountability, to proactively supporting the charter schools to ensure their success," said HGEA Deputy Executive Director Randy Perreira.

That brought a response from Fred Birkett, chairman of the review panel. He pointed out that panel members have a collective 20-plus years of experience in charter schools.

"The point is, we are doing the work, we are ready to do the work and we are looking forward to continuing to do the work for quality charter schools," Birkett said.

Nancy Cook Lauer can be reached at


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