Bill takes on charter school funding issues

By Hunter Bishop/ Tribune-Herald

An encouraging bill for the future of public charter schools in Hawaii needs only the governor's signature to become law.

John Thatcher, vice president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools, said the bill would provide struggling charter schools with the regular funding they need to operate.

Thatcher is also a teacher at Connections Public Charter School in Hilo, which sued the state in January, alleging a breach of contract for failing to provide the school with the money promised under the 1999 law.

The governor is reviewing the bill and has not decided whether to sign it, his spokeswoman, Kim Murakawa, said Wednesday.

The law would smooth out funding for charter schools by mandating that the state Department of Education provide up to 50 percent of the projected per pupil allocation by Aug. 1 of each year, and the remainder by Oct. 15. The allocations would be determined by the state auditor's office.

The bill would also put funding of charter schools on an even playing field with other public schools, he said. Under the proposed bill, the auditor would determine the appropriate allocations for charter schools based on the current year's level of funding for all public schools.

Thatcher said that's significant because currently the DOE allocates funding to charter school's based on the previous year's funding. "We're always behind," he said. The bill would also make the funding retroactive to this year, requiring the DOE to make adjustments for the current year. "That's a big one," he said.

Thatcher said recent legislation allowing organizations like Kamehameha Schools to operate as partners with public charter schools has boosted efforts to make the funding changes. Soon after the legislation giving Kamehameha Schools authority to become involved in charter schools was signed by the governor last month, Kamehameha Schools officials complained that they could not operate a charter school at current funding levels. At the time, Gov. Ben Cayetano expressed support for changes similar to those included in SB 2512.

"Kamehameha Schools sure helped us with funding," Thatcher said. "Now we have a bigger cousin."

The 1999 state law allowed 25 charter schools statewide - the last three were approved in August. But the new legislation caps the number of charter schools at 23. It was not clear how the number of existing charter schools would be reduced.

Donna Ikeda, chairperson of the Board of Education's Charter School Committee, did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the proposed legislation Wednesday.

Another change for charter schools would be the bill's provision allowing charter school students to participate on athletic teams at public schools. Thatcher said officials of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for Big Island public school sports, previously rejected plans for a charter school league for competitive athletics. But under the bill awaiting the governor's signature, students could join teams at any school in the complex where the charter school is located. "That's a biggie over here, a big plus," he said.

Thatcher said there is one troublesome part of the legislation: Charter schools would be prohibited from filing lawsuits against the state.

"That's one part of the law that really bothers us," Thatcher said. The state could miss its mandated deadlines for payments to the schools and, "What recourse would we have?"

Thatcher said the proposed legislation, if signed, is not likely to affect the school's lawsuit against the state, however. But he is concerned that the proposed law requires charter schools to report their projected enrollments for the 2002 - 03 school year by May 15 - in less than a week.

Nevertheless Thatcher is "very encouraged" by the proposed bill.

"It's much better than the existing law," he said. Connections is currently running an operating deficit, but could eliminate that deficit if funded according to the proposed legislation, he said.