BOE Chairman: Charter schools shortchanged

By Hunter Bishop/ Tribune-Herald

Funding for public charter schools doesn't make sense and should be changed, said Herbert Watanabe, chairman of the state Board of Education.

Charter schools should be getting a per - pupil allocation for special education students the same as regular students, Watanabe said in a telephone interview Monday.

Charter school administrators have been complaining this year that a new law is shortchanging charter schools that enroll special education students. The law gives authority to establish charter school funding to the state Office of the Auditor, which established a slightly higher level of per - pupil funding for regular students in charter schools, but said charter schools would get no per - pupil funds for special education students.

Last week the Wai Ola "Waters of Life" New Century Public Charter School in Hilo wrote to Watanabe citing a "critical need" for the money.

Nineteen percent of the 156 students at Waters of Life in Hilo are special education students, said Laurie Saarinen, chairwoman of the Waters of Life board.

"We want the money or a written explanation why we aren't getting it," said Laurie Saarinen on Monday. The situation presents a "grave hardship" for the school, she said.

According to the auditor's determination of $3,805 allocated for each regular student, the school is seeking nearly $100,000 in additional funding for the school's special education students this year.

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 charter schools are on the Big Island.

Charter school officials claim the per - pupil funds themselves fail to measure up to the amount spent on students at regular schools in Hawaii, especially taking into consideration that charter schools pay for their own school buildings and other facilities, including maintenance and repairs.

Watanabe said he has not seen the Waters of Life letter, but said Monday that the failure to allocate per - pupil funds to special education students "doesn't make sense."

"The (DOE) does not make the determination," he said. "We do not have anything to do with the allocation. We have to go back to the legislature and change the law." Watanabe said he would work with the board's Charter Schools Committee to recommend that the Legislature rework the law, which he characterized as "clear as mud."

"There is a problem if I'm thinking it's clear as mud; what are those people out there feeling?" Watanabe said.

Steve Hirakami, director of the Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, said all students in charter schools are hurt by the policy because funds allocated for regular students must be shared with special education students.

John Thatcher, president of the Hawaii Charter School Association, said the situation is actually getting worse for charter schools this year because the DOE also has failed to provide some teachers for special education students that were promised. "Positions are not coming through until January," he said. "Most schools got a few, but not all the positions promised."

Thatcher, a teacher at Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, said a federal Department of Education ruling in 1997 said states with charter schools must provide equal funding for special education students in charter schools. "The U.S. DOE is starting to get very concerned with what's happening in charter schools," he said. "This issue is begging for the Office of Civil Rights to get involved."