Law helps charter schools

But advocates say funding's still too little

Tribune-Herald staff writer

State charter schools should be getting more money this year under a bill signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Linda Lingle, but charter school administrators are still not jumping with joy.

The new law is good news for the charter schools, said Jim Shon, director of the state Charter Schools Administrative Office, in that it will provide equitable and stable funding for the state's 27 charter schools. More important, the law gives charter schools recognition and respect, and provides accountability necessary for charter schools to move forward, he said.

But charter school advocates complain that the state Department of Education is still providing fewer dollars for charter schools than for students in regular schools.

"It's progress, but we still have a long way to go for equity," said John Thatcher, principal of Connections Public Charter School.

Charter schools were authorized by the state Legislature in 1999 to provide creative alternatives to the regular public school classrooms for students.

The new law primarily benefits charter schools by funding fringe benefits and workers compensation for charter school employees, which were previously taken out of each charter school's per-pupil allocation.

It "will be a tremendous boost to us financially," said Pat Rice, Waimea Middle School administrator. Her school converted to charter status last year. Although acknowledging that the per-pupil allocation "could be higher," Rice said she's pleased with bill.

"We want to use as much money as we can on our students," Rice said. "It needs to go toward improving education, not for workers comp and fringe benefits."

The bill also represents important recognition of public charter schools in the state, Shon said. "It's saying, 'We have them and we want them to succeed. One of the most important things is that it provides more clarity and accountability for charter schools." With that, said the former state legislator, it will be easier to persuade the Legislature to distribute education funds equitably throughout the public schools.

Hawaii's charter schools receive operating funds on a per-pupil basis determined by a statutory formula. But in 2004, instead of receiving approximately $5,700 per pupil in accordance with the formula, charter schools received approximately $4,600 per pupil due in part to "inappropriate figures reported by the department of budget and finance," according to the bill.

The DOE's most recent report 2003-04 indicated that regular students actually were being funded with more than $8,000 each. "The funding formula is more crucial now that the Legislature did not follow it," Shon said.

"The bottom line is that we're funded at a lower level than the regular schools," said Thatcher said. "It's mind-boggling that the legislators who make the laws don't follow the law. It doesn't make sense."

The Big Island is home to 12 of the state's 27 public charter schools, which were authorized by law in 1999 as alternatives to the regular public schools. About 2,500 students attend Big Island charter schools and enrollment is growing, said Steve Hirakami, principal of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences Public Charter School in Keaau.

Removing the cost of fringe benefits should save charter schools about $7 million statewide, Shon said.

"It's good," said Hirakami. "It solidifies the budget ahead of time." But Hirakami is disappointed that while the per-pupil funding will increase by about $600 for charter school students under the bill, the amount will remain significantly lower than what regular public school students receive.

"Is a charter school student worth that much less to the state than a regular school student?" Thatcher asked. "It's a pure equity issue."

The bill also establishes a 16-member task force to recommend additional changes to the laws pertaining to charter schools. "There is still a lot of work to be done," Shon said.

Hunter Bishop can be reached at hbishop@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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