Special Ed Students Slighted

By Hunter Bishop/ Tribune-Herald

Administrators at public charter schools are reeling this week after learning they won't be getting money for their special education students.

The state Office of the Auditor released its decision on the amount of funds charter schools will be getting per pupil this year but failed to factor special education students into the equation.

As a result, the charter schools will be getting $3,805 for each regular student enrolled - but nothing for each special education student.

Under a state law adopted this year, the state auditor determines the amount of annual funding per pupil that charter schools receive.

"It's an interpretation of the law by the auditor," said Steve Hirakami, director of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences, a charter school in Pahoa.

Charter schools are funded by the state Department of Education but they operate independently under policies set by their own school boards. Eleven of the state's 25 public charter schools are on the Big Island.

Regular public schools get a per - pupil allocation and additional services from the DOE for special education students. Under the auditor's decision, charter schools will continue to get additional services from the DOE, such as teachers and special education supplies, but no per - pupil allocation. "Mind - boggling," Hirakami said. "It's really something most people can see."

The money allocated to charter schools should be divided by the total number of charter school students - both regular and special education - and allocated accordingly, Hirakami said. The auditor, however, divided the available money only among the regular students.

Hirakami's formula would have reduced the per - pupil allocation to $3,372 for each charter school student, but would have provided that amount for all students.

"My school would have benefited," he said, because it has 17 special education students and 90 regular students. Charter schools with few or no special education students would lose some of the funds currently allocated to them.

The DOE has struggled to pay the increased costs of educating special education students in regular schools under the court - mandated Felix consent decree since 1993.

"We're just talking equity," Hirakami said. "It's kind of like a no - brainer. Our special education students are getting less than regular education children."

Hirakami, who is also treasurer of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools, said the law provides for no appeal of the auditor's decision, and there is no relief in sight for charter schools with special education students. Charter schools are required to accept special education students on an equal basis with other students who apply.

The state Superintendent of Schools, Pat Hamamoto, told Hirakami that there's nothing she can do about the current situation, he said. Hamamoto could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The new law also does not allow charter schools to sue the state over funding, but Hirakami said some of his students' parents are considering their own legal challenges to the funding policy.

"My parents are fuming. Even the regular education parents," Hirakami said. "It impacts them, too."

The charter school allocations are also arriving later than expected. John Thatcher, a teacher at Connections Charter School in Hilo and vice president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools, said charter schools were supposed to have their money from the DOE by Oct. 15 under the law but the auditor did not say what the amount would be until this week.

The DOE released partial funding to charter schools based on estimates of the final allocation in August but the charter schools still do not have the total amount they are due, Thatcher said. Connections has 219 regular students, and 20 special education students for whom there will be no funding at all.

"Strange things are going on here" said Thatcher.