Tuesday, May 1, 2001


Charter school supporters
say bill will weaken
the movement


By Crystal Kua

Now you see it, now you don't, now you see it again.

The state Legislature's ability to pull legislation out of a hat has charter school advocates seething about a bill poised to pass today that they say will weaken the movement to establish public schools free of red tape.

"If these changes take effect, it's going to make us the laughingstock of the nation in charter school laws," said John Thatcher, a teacher at Connections New Century Public Charter School in Mountain View on the Big Island.

"We have no problem in making the law better, but this is going backward, not forward," said Ku Kahakalau, vice president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools and director of Kanu O Ka Aina, a public charter school on the Big Island.

But the chairman of the Senate Education Committee said that the "contentious" bill was intended to address not only the concerns of those who wanted to make charter schools more accountable, but also the concerns of charter schools.

"Obviously, I don't see everything from (the charter schools') perspective, but from our perspective I was hoping that this would help assure the survival of charter schools," Sen. Norman Sakamoto (D, Moanalua) said.

CHARTER SCHOOLS in Hawaii are publicly funded schools that are free from most laws and regulations except collective-bargaining, health and safety, discrimination and federal policies.

Schools are held accountable for student performance and money through a contract or charter with the state.

Supporters say that the freedom experienced by charter schools helps the entire public-school system blossom and succeed.

Charter school leaders continued to lobby lawmakers yesterday in a last-minute effort to get enough votes to kill House Bill 946, but the prospects of doing that were slim, they said.

While proponents of the bill say it is needed to streamline the charter school process, the bill adds more bureaucracy and gives more control to the Board of Education, which goes against the philosophy of charter schools.

"It hasn't addressed any of our concerns," Kahakalau said. "The law needs to be changed."

THE BILL would do several things. One section would make it optional for the Department of Education to decide whether charter schools with enrollments under 120 students will receive a small school subsidy that would augment per-pupil allocations in its budget. The current law makes the subsidy mandatory.

"I believe some of the fears of some charter schools is, they may not have some of the funds they had last year," Sakamoto said.

Another part of the bill would require annual evaluations by an independent group for the first two years of a charter. The current law provides for annual self-evaluations and independent evaluations at the end of four years.

Charter school advocates say they welcome public scrutiny, but an annual evaluation is an added expense and unnecessary.

"They have to have practicability, too," said Tom Helm, Connections chief executive officer.

Helm and Thatcher also said the bill would take away autonomy from the charter schools and the local school boards that are supposed to run them.

The bill also would set up provisional charters, which Sakamoto said was intended to help charter schools get leases and other items they have been having trouble getting without a signed contract with the state.

DURING THE first half of the session, charter school supporters successfully lobbied against what they felt were anti-charter school bills, including one that would have established a "sunset" provision, which would have meant the end of all charter schools in 2005.

But during the second half of the session, in a common legislative tactic, lawmakers gutted an unrelated measure and replaced the contents with the charter school language.

"This is pretty sneaky, the way they put it in," said Alex Cyran, a teacher at Lanikai Elementary, an established public school that converted to a charter school.

"To clamp down like this, it will kill the movement."

2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin