Is Hawai‘i’s Charter School Experiment Working?

You’ve seen the headlines that read like a police blotter. But look closely at Hawai‘i’s charters and you’ll also see innovation, community and teacher empowerment. What’s the real story?


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Justin Wiley does robot brain surgery at Ka Waihona PCS in Wai‘anae, which started in a chicken coop in 2002. In 2014, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited to honor its progress.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

First came the headlines, in 2011: “Audit rips Hawai‘i charter schools,” “Audit finds fraud, overspending,” and “Audit finds ‘little or no oversight’ of charter school spending.”


Next came the details. The head of elementary education at Myron B. Thompson Academy was found to have worked full time as a flight attendant for 180 school days; at some of the 10 audited charter schools (out of 32 at the time), part-time employees pulled down outsize salaries, while at others, the only qualification needed for a job was to be related to the director. Often there was no way for then-state-auditor Marion Higa to follow the money: $17,000 paid to the Myron B. Thompson Academy’s vice principal’s personal catering company, $18,000 spent on visits to Chuck E. Cheese’s, Wet ’N’ Wild and Ice Palace by the Kamaile Academy. 


“The more we dug into it, the more we found these peculiar payments,” said Higa. At four schools, enrollments couldn’t be verified; one had 28 phantom students for whom the state was conveying the standard per pupil charter subsidy of $6,800. What the heck was going on?


This should be an excellent time for charter schools, maintains Jim Shon, director at the Hawai‘i Educational Policy Center. But by overreacting to the errors and bad judgment of a few, he says, the DOE is doubling down on withholding basic support from all charters, even while increasing the demands on them—obligations they must meet from the same subsidy that pays for teachers. “Charters were never set up to be a funding model,” he says. “They were meant to be a source of innovation, with everybody borrowing from them.”


Though embroiled in getting air conditioning into classrooms at the moment, Corey Rosenlee, new president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association, echoes Shon’s line about innovation, with a caveat: “Charter schools are not the answer to what ails education in Hawai‘i or the U.S.”


“Look, testing is ruining education,” he adds. “If you grade a school and a teacher by this one test, what that school and teacher will do is teach to the test. And if they’re teaching disadvantaged kids, like we often are, students in the highest poverty areas are likely to get the least diverse curriculum.” No art, no music, no diverging from what Shon calls “the notion that there’s only one measure of learning: the bubble test.”


“When I visit charter schools,” Rosenlee continues, “the teachers tell me they feel empowered.” In regular schools, which accept everyone, including transient and high-needs students, “all our teachers now feel ignored. We need to empower them.”


Headlines like these led the Board of Education and Legislature to institute new standards of oversight and accountability.

On the Mainland, a charter school advocate like Shon would be dismissed as a stealth union buster by someone like Rosenlee. But here, Shon says, charter schools “are less controversial than on the Mainland, where they grew out of a voucher movement that had a lot of anti-union and anti-establishment feeling. Hawai‘i really grafted it onto a more democratic model.”


That’s because, Rosenlee says, “We’re one of five states where charter teachers are part of collective bargaining. Because of this, the big, private for-profit charter companies have stayed out of Hawai‘i.”


Though they’re separated by 20 miles of H-1 and their back-and-forth is mediated by a journalist, their agreement is worth a moment of appreciation. On the Mainland, charter advocates and union leaders are indeed at each other’s throats. The very day of Rosenlee’s comments, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s teachers union voted an 80-percent hike in dues to go toward combating the rise of non-unionized charters. In a number of states, conservative-leaning governors, legislatures and city councils backed by Wal-Mart, Gates and Koch foundation money are pushing charters and vouchers.


Some have enacted laws that set up draconian school grading systems that require failing schools to be privatized and turned over to those professional for-profit charter companies that have so far left Hawai‘i alone—or almost.


“On the Mainland, the charter scene has become very urban because their urban schools are so burdened by economic issues,” says Shon. “Here, ours have become very rural. Half of the charters are on the Big Island. They’re very much tied to their communities. And then you have the whole Hawaiian education movement and its achievements. It’s an excellent time to do this.”


If only the headlines would stop. If only the same autonomy that fueled innovation and creativity in Hawai‘i’s charter schools hadn’t allowed a few unscrupulous administrators to pilfer and waste state Department of Education resources.


And so, in 2012, the Legislature voted to repeal the existing charter school law. In its place, Act 130 would “establish clear lines of authority and accountability” by putting the state’s charter schools under a state Public Charter School Commission. A new contract was drawn up, bringing the previously free-range schools—which are public institutions, funded from the same pool as the rest of Hawai‘i’s 288 public schools—under the state’s new Strive HI accountability framework.


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