New schools law draws mixed reaction from officials

By Hunter Bishop/ Tribune-Herald

The new federal "No Child Left Behind" legislation is "horrendous" for Hawaii, said state Board of Education Chairman Herbert Watanabe on Monday.

But it could provide a boost for public charter schools in Hawaii and a boon in private tutoring services, said a charter school official.

The federal bill, signed into law in January, will allow students in "failing" public schools to transfer to better schools, with school districts paying the cost of transportation, beginning this fall.

State Department of Education officials are hurrying to develop guidelines to meet the requirement of the law, and the DOE announced last week that the first students would be attending new schools by Oct. 24. But only students in the fourth, sixth, ninth and 11th grades will be eligible this year.

Twenty - three of 41 public schools on the Big Island are said to be failing for not making enough progress over two consecutive years in student academic standards. The lowest - achieving students in these will be eligible to transfer out first.

If space in an eligible school is unavailable for students wishing to transfer, however, or if funds are not available for transportation, the student's current school would be obligated to provide extra tutoring for the student, which could be provided outside the school by private education services, including religion - based schools and charitable organizations.

Funding for transportation and tutoring services could put a significant dent in the DOE's budget, Watanabe said.

Special Programs Manager Elaine Takenaka said earlier this month that $33 million in additional federal funds would be allocated to fund the program statewide, but she expressed doubt whether that will be enough to accommodate the thousands of students who would be eligible for transfers.

But Watanabe said Monday that, while the state Department of Education is gearing up to implement the law, no additional federal funds have been allocated to the state yet. "While they passed this law, they haven't provided us with the operating funds," he said. The result will be that programs serving all other students will be adversely affected by the law. "You tap into the existing operating funds."

Watanabe said federal officials apparently had inner city schools in mind when they passed the legislation. "We cannot move these kids around (Hawaii) like they can in the cities," he said. The alternative will be to provide tutoring services in the students' current schools. "That takes money."

Besides, there are no guarantees that moving to a higher - performing school will even help a low - achieving student, Watanabe said. "A lot depends on the parent."

John Thatcher, vice president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools, said the federal "No Child Left Behind" bill could give a much - needed boost to charter schools in Hawaii, however, if parents recognize their options.

The Big Island has 12 of the state's 25 charter schools, which are state - funded but operate free of many administrative requirements regulating other public schools and have their own elected school boards that govern policies.

With the high number of failing schools on the Big Island, "there's not a whole lot of places to put these kids," Thatcher said. But the relatively high number of charter schools, none of which is designated as failing, provides an opportunity for parents.

Thatcher, a teacher at Connection Public Charter School in Hilo, said the problem for charter schools this year is that they must certify their enrollments for per - pupil allocations from the DOE by Aug. 12, which is before the DOE has said it will determine which students are eligible for transfers.

State schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said the charter schools will not get additional per - pupil funding after they certify their enrollments next month. "If (school officials) aren't going to use charter schools, parents won't get much choice," Thatcher said.

"We're probably going to see a lot more tutoring," he said, and whether or not tutoring services will be regulated has not been determined.

"Will tutors need to be certificated? We don't know yet," said Watanabe, who also urged caution about charter schools. "We haven't seen the proof that charter schools are doing any better."

Completed data haven't been compiled yet on charter schools to determine whether progress is being made. The first charter school on the Big Island was established in 1999. The DOE is using data from 2000 - the last year standardized test scores are available - and prior to that to determine the academic progress of regular public schools. The statewide teachers strike canceled testing last year and the most recent test results will not be available until next month.

Thatcher said the result of the new emphasis on lower - achieving students in the federal law will be that education will get worse and worse for the higher - end students. "That should be a major concern for parents. A lot of parents need to look at their options."

The implications of the new federal law are huge, said Thatcher, and with the high number of failing schools in Hawaii County, and the majority of the state's charter schools, "if it's going to work anywhere, it's on the Big Island."