State leery of online schools|Charter schools' effort to expand offerings put off

by Hunter Bishop
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

Several charter schools in Hawaii, including three on the Big Island, want to offer online classes using a curriculum designed by a company headed by former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett.

The state Board of Education has balked at the proposals, however, with board members last week voicing concern about the legality and cost of the program. They took no action on four schools' requests.

Charter schools operate under board-approved agreements that include detailed implementation plans. The board's permission is needed for most charter schools to offer online curriculum.

John Thatcher, principal of Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, said the school has a waiting list of more than 100 students, most of whom are so disappointed with public schools that they'd prefer to homeschool. "We're trying to provide a quality option."

Board of Education Chairman Breene Harimoto said Friday that he's still not sure what that option is.

Harimoto said he's not against the online proposals, but there was not enough information on which to make a decision. Board members were reluctant to approve changes because they were not apprised of the proposals before the meeting, he said.

"Some of us couldn't figure out if it's home-schooling or e-schooling," he said. "We were not given the complete information beforehand. It's hard to make a decision on this."

Connections, and Kua O Ka La and Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences, both in Puna, were the Big Island schools seeking approval to create a "virtual" school. Students would study at home using provided laptop computers with a teacher assigned by the school to oversee them.

Harimoto said his concerns include the potential legality and costs of the program. He was particularly puzzled by the mention of Hawaii Virtual Academy at Monday's board meeting. HVA is an umbrella group for schools intending to implement the online curriculum provided by K12, a Virginia-based company that sought Bennett's help in developing the curriculum.

HVA has a Web site that offers registration for online instruction in Hawaii and is taking applications for 2005-06 school year enrollment -- yet notes that the program has not been approved yet.

"It seemed, a little, not right. I just want to know more about it," Harimoto said.

Thatcher said that after spending a year planning the online classes, it was "disappointing" to be invited to make presentations to the board only to see each request deferred. "We've been working with (K12) for a year," he said.

Thatcher said he will ask the board to reconsider the deferral of his school's request, since he made his presentation while the board still had a quorum at the meeting. But the other schools' presentations were made to less than a quorum after Big Island board member Herb Watanabe left the meeting early. Those schools may ask to be put on the board's next agenda.

Thatcher said board members suggested students interested in online classes enroll in the Myron B. Thompson Virtual Academy on Oahu, a public charter school that conducts all of its education via online programs that students use at home, similar to K12. Of the Thompson Academy's 800 students, about 45 are on the Big Island where satellite offices in Kailua-Kona and Hilo meet the Big Island students needs for proctored tests and help with special projects.

"We're trying to bring it down to a local level," Thatcher said. "With 20 kids we could easily integrate them" with the special or extracurricular programs already provided at Connections.

Mark Christiano, principal of Kihei Public Charter High School on Maui, said the state board's lack of understanding of what charter schools are trying to do is "a little offensive."

One board member suggested that the schools would be using "facilities funds" for e-school students, he said. "We don't get any facilities funds from the DOE. If we're using facilities funds, it's not from what (the board) gave us.

"I think politics is involved here," he said. "I'll just leave it at that."

Not so, said Big Island BOE member Watanabe. "I don't think there's any politics involved in this one way or another," he said. "We're looking at the necessity of fully qualified teachers. Do we have the money to do that? If we approve that and start now, it runs into money we don't have."

The K12 program costs about $1,500 per student, and board member Karen Knudsen feared that the program could attract more students to charter schools than the board has budgeted for them.

"Can they actually do that?" Watanabe asked. "Where's the money coming from?"

Charter schools receive $5,604 per student from the Department of Education, nearly $2,000 less than the amount spent on regular school students, but the charter school officials all said that the cost of the K12 program could be handled with the schools' existing budgets.

Christiano said it's difficult to put a cost on education, but he doesn't believe the costs of educating a student in K12 is significantly more or less than a student in the regular program. With the curriculum, virtual teacher, field trips, Internet connections and other costs, "We can actually lose money," he said. "Our budget goes away real fast."

The Thompson Academy has current openings for students and plans to add up to 100 students a year, said Principal Diana Oshiro. The school is also now considering using the K12 program.

Oshiro said the state board's fear may be that Hawaii's home-schooled students will flock to the charter schools to get the free computer and curriculum, which has the potential to increase school populations significantly.

No one has looked at where these kids are coming from, Oshiro said -- home school, public or private schools --but the state is required to accept them if they apply. "We have a lot of kids coming from private schools," she said.

Steven Hirakami, principal of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences, was incensed by the board's treatment of the charter schools at Monday's meeting. "They didn't even have us with a quorum. And it was deferred without a timeline.

"Politics might have something to do with it," Hirakami said. "But (K12) is in all 50 states, so they couldn't have anything that controversial."

Harimoto said he, too, was only vaguely aware that the K12 program was a product of William Bennett's company. He hasn't seen K12's curriculum regarding evolution.

Hirakami said he doesn't see eye-to-eye with Bennett, an outspoken political and social conservative, but he believes the K12 program will benefit his students.

Charter schools are supposed to develop innovative programs, Hirakami said.

"Now they're holding us back. We're just creating more opportunities for kids. They're trying to make program decisions for us. It's micromanaging by the board and a lack of respect for charter schools. We did go through the right channels."

Added Thatcher: "The board is supposed to be bi-partisan. I hope it's not politics. It's totally a legitimate curriculum."

Hunter Bishop can be reached at


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