Tuesday, December 3, 2002

State of Hawaii

Special ed allocation
angers charter schools

State officials say they are working
to settle the funding concerns

By Susan Essoyan

The state is shortchanging special-education students in charter schools by paying only for their teachers and not their other costs, according to John Thatcher II, president of the Hawaii Charter School Association.

"Federal law says the state is supposed to treat special-education kids in charter schools the same way they would treat them in the regular public schools, but that's just not happening," Thatcher said. "It is a civil-rights violation, in my opinion."

But state education officials denied charges of discrimination and said they are working to resolve funding questions and ensure that everyone gets a fair share.

"Because it is creating so much confusion, the department is trying to rethink the manner in which it handles special education in the charter schools," said Shannon Ajifu, chairwoman of the Board of Education's Charter School Committee. "It's causing the charters to feel cheated, and actually we're not trying to cheat them."

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of the state Department of Education under a charter, or contract with the state. They are formed by administrators, teachers and parents who want to provide innovative ways of learning. The state covers the schools' operating costs.

The state auditor, complying with a new law, determined recently that charter schools would receive $3,805 from the Department of Education for each regular-education student this year but no per-pupil allocation for special-education students.

"We were instructed to divide up the programs for regular-education students, and special-education funding was left off the list," state Auditor Marion Higa said Friday. "It was not our choice. It was in the law."

Instead, the state provides direct services and funds to hire special-education teachers at charter schools, as it does for regular public schools, according to Debra Farmer, special-education administrator for the Department of Education. Each special-education teacher also receives a total of $1,690 per year to cover supplies for all their students, at both regular and charter schools, she said.

"I'm treating charter schools just as I would any other DOE public schools," she said. "I'm not discriminating."

But charter school officials said that the department is overlooking the fact that special-education students consume resources just like any other student.

"I have received money for special-education positions, but I haven't received a penny for desks, chairs, lights, telephone -- I don't have any operational costs," said Steve Hirakami, director of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa on the Big Island. "It's not logical."

"You've got to realize that a special-education child is considered a general-education student first," he added. "We're only seeing the part that is over and above the regular-education cost."

He has asked the attorney general for an advisory opinion and may also turn to the U.S. Department of Education for help, he said.

Board of Education Chairman Herbert Watanabe said yesterday he would be looking into whether any changes need to be made in the law, and Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto is also planning to meet with the attorney general to discuss the issue.

Charles Higgins, public charter schools specialist for the state, said the department is reviewing the way it divides up the money, because "these are all public school students, and they are entitled to the same opportunities."

"We are looking at a way to make it simpler next year so everyone understands and to make sure it's fair and equitable," he said.

There are 25 charter schools in Hawaii, about half of them based on Hawaiian culture or language. Although some special-education students require intensive services not available at charter schools, others thrive in the smaller, more intimate environment of such schools and "can fit right in," Thatcher said.

"We should be getting some kind of allocation for these kids," said Thatcher, who teaches at Connections Public Charter School in Hilo. "They're using our facilities, our supplies and staff time for mandated meetings."