Posted on: Sunday, February 3, 2002

Charter schools face pitfalls

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

The first time Timandra Sinclair spotted Voyager Charter School she told her husband to keep driving.

Voyager students Ciarah Canencia, left, and Simone Komine look wistfully at the "giving tree" that the charter school has set up, seeking equipment and basic supplies.

Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser

The campus location in a Kaka'ako strip mall next to a computer shop and an adult video store gave Sinclair doubts about its suitability as a daily destination for her first-grade daughter.

"It's not traditional," said Sinclair. "It's the first thing I tell parents who call: 'Don't panic; we're in a strip mall.'"

Sinclair and 130 other parents didn't panic; they liked the curriculum, saw the enthusiasm of the teachers and stayed. And in its first year of operation, Voyager has simultaneously thrived and struggled in its impermanent environment.

At the same time all children at Voyager learn Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Hawaiian, teachers hang wish lists of basic supplies on a "giving tree" in the office: scissors, construction paper or printer cartridges.

With state financial support of around $2,900 per pupil about half of what regular public schools receive the idea of purchasing a permanent location for the campus seems like an impossible dream. The school has hired a professional money raiser to help it write grant proposals and bring in outside donations.

The 22 charter schools across the state are dealing with financial difficulties and legal battles that have left some wondering just how much longer they can survive and whether the state really wants the reform movement they represent. Several experts say that unless things change, most Hawai'i charter schools will have to close within two years because of financial shortfalls.

Voyager's principal left in frustration last spring before the first school year even started. Now Sinclair, a forensic psychologist, is serving as acting administrator until the school board finds a permanent replacement.

"Financially, we are seriously hurting, but we can't let the kids know," Sinclair said. "What we're doing is so good. How wonderful is it to have a school where teachers can do what they need to do rather than a guideline that might not fit? They're given the freedom to teach. We have wonderful parent involvement."

The Voyager School is housed in the Coral Commercial Center in Kaka'ako. Finding a more suitable setting for educating children seems remote at this point. Like other charter schools, Voyager faces a tight budget and ambivalent support for its programs among state officials.

Jeff Widener The Honolulu Advertiser

Charter schools use public dollars but operate largely independent of local school bureaucracies, which advocates say makes them more efficient, responsive to parents and creative in their curriculum. Parents say their strength comes in the freedom teachers have to work with students at any ability level, ranging from those who have fallen behind and need extra attention to the gifted and talented students who thrive on more challenges.

While many of the 3,066 students attending charters have transferred from existing public schools, experts say they have attracted some students who had dropped out or who were being home-schooled.

Jennifer Severson, the parent of a 5-year-old, was attracted by the parent involvement, the interaction of students across grade levels and class sizes that are capped at 18. "He's really growing here," she said. "The teachers have a real respect for the students."

On the Big Island at Connections Charter School, which grew out of Mountain View Elementary School, parent Bryan Fitzgerald attributes his children's academic success to the curriculum. The school keeps groups of kids together in the same class throughout grade school and, because the kids have all learned the same thing, wastes little time on repetition and re-teaching. "I really think that charter schools are the first alternative," he said. "Education has been this failing monopoly, and now people are saying maybe this will work."

Three charter schools, including Voyager and Connections, have sued the state in the past several months, arguing that they get less state money than other public schools. The Department of Education is trying to shut down a Hilo charter school, Waters of Life, because of allegations of inadequate facilities and overspending.

The flurry of legal action is likely to be followed by even more charter school laws. At least 49 charter school bills have been introduced at the Legislature this session. The proposals represent the diverse and somewhat conflicted feelings state officials hold for such schools, and include everything from phasing out the reform movement to providing more money for the charter schools. Some bills would increase the number of charter schools in the state, while others would prevent more from opening.

Rep. Dennis Arakaki, D-28th (Kalihi Valley, Kamehameha Heights), who has advocated turning failing public schools into charters, said the state has to strike a financial balance between charter schools and regular campuses. "I think the funding has to be clarified," Arakaki said. "The whole principal behind the charter school is that it's not supposed to cost any more than a regular school. We might create a system of inequity if we start to give more to the charter schools."

He also noted that charter schools have more freedom than other campuses to go out and seek grants, foundation money and partnerships with community groups and businesses.

But Bill Woerner, director of West Hawai'i Explorations Academy, a charter school at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai'i in Kailua, Kona, said his campus has not received any state money so far this fiscal year. The school, which has been nationally recognized for its project-based curriculum, is operating solely from federal start-up money it received the past two years and a National Science Foundation grant.

"I'm not an alarmist, but I am getting concerned," Woerner said. "We were very conservative last year with our money and still have the federal startup funding. We can make it for another year and then we'll be bankrupt. Some of the schools will be bankrupt before the end of the year."

While Woerner expects the state money to come through at some point, he hasn't been told when that will happen. "Most charter schools did receive an initial allocation," he said. "They haven't even provided us with that."

The charter school reform movement was launched in Hawai'i in 1999 with a law allowing 25 such schools statewide.

The number of charter schools increased from six to 22 this school year; three more are expected to open next year.

While promising to bring much-needed change to the system, they have been a contentious issue both inside and among the Board of Education, the Department of Education, and the state Legislature. Board members are concerned about how to pay for the new schools and how to ensure they offer a safe and appropriate education.

"These are schools that are funded with state funds," said DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen. "There still is a level of accountability that is expected and must be met."

Because of a lack of control, the department now says charter school teachers can no longer accrue tenure the way other teachers in the system do. In the DOE system, the more senior teachers get the pick of the plum positions.

Two years ago, charter schools received about $4,000 per student, plus extra money for administrative costs.

After some of the charter school laws changed last session, though, the state auditor recalculated the amount schools should receive and came up with $2,900 per pupil. DOE officials point out that charter schools are supposed to operate more efficiently than traditional campuses, but say the schools use an additional amount of state money by using the department's technical and administrative services.

Nina Buchanan, education professor and director of the University of Hawai'i Charter School Resource Center, said that unless laws change, the only charter schools that could survive are the Hawaiian immersion programs that are able to tap into an additional source of federal money set aside for indigenous groups.

"We're all dying out here in the field," Buchanan said. "It's not possible to run a school on $2,900 a year. Even in the most carefully managed environment, we can't stay in business more than two years, not without significant federal funds or funds from elsewhere."

State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-16th (Moanalua, Salt Lake), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said there's no clear understanding of how much charter schools should receive per pupil. "They're saying that with more flexibility they can do more," Sakamoto said. "There's not an agreement on the amount."

Sakamoto said the Legislature will look at the method the auditor used to determine per pupil money, as well as issues such as what happens when a charter school fails. "In the event of a default, what happens?" Sakamoto said. "To what extent are the taxpayers standing in line behind them to take responsibility on things like rent?"

Board member Karen Knudsen said Hawai'i is not unique in the growing pains its charter school movement has experienced. She said the state's 1999 charter school law was passed in haste, and hopes school officials and legislators can work together to fix it. "There was the feeling that we had to quick, quick, quick rush it into law," Knudsen said. "Now we're paying the price."

Libby Oshiyama, president of the Hawai'i Association of Charter Schools, said she would like to see more technical help and accounting advice available to charter schools. She got a call recently from Arkansas officials looking to talk to a similar-sized state about how it runs its charter school association. "I told them we don't have any money and we're all volunteers," Oshiyama said.

They haven't called back.

Reach Jennifer Hiller at jhiller@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8084.