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?


(page 5 of 5)

A Quick History

Reforms, reversals and revolts 


These key events explain why public schools, teachers, students and parents have felt whipsawed over the past decade and why a federal obsession with test scores helped foster the charter movement’s escape from the blackboard bureaucracy.



“A Nation at Risk” study says foreign students out-score U.S. students, proposes test standards and merit pay for teachers, among other reforms.



“School choice” idea takes root, backed by free-market conservatives. 



Minnesota first state to authorize charter schools.



Hawai‘i passes charter school law; Wai‘alae Elementary “converts” a DOE facility. Growth of charters limited by lack of DOE facilities to move into.


Bipartisan Congress passes and President George W. Bush signs No Child Left Behind, requiring states to create standardized tests and scores to meet high standards.  


Part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $90 billion for education. A $4.5 billion bonus tempts schools into joining the U.S. DOE’s Race to the Top, but the tests are based on the Common Core Standards Initiative, which sets a national curriculum.


Common Core’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) over humanities suits the national concern over job and career preparation, but parents complain about the loss of arts, music and P.E. Eventually, 42 states join, but resistance grows. 


Wisconsin ends collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers.


Districts experience difficulty meeting NCLB standards, which punish even good schools by setting ever-expanding goals. President Barack Obama allows states to request a waiver. Ten states request opt-out waivers.


Resistance to testing grows among parents and teachers.


Hawai‘i charter commission imposes higher fiscal and academic standards. 


Seattle teachers join parent revolt against excessive testing.


National assessment shows U.S. students still lag far behind foreign.


A total of 40 states, including Hawai‘i, have waivers from No Child Left Behind.


Indiana becomes the first state to withdraw from Common Core.


California teacher tenure and seniority are ruled unconstitutional by state supreme court.


More than 150,000 New York parents opt out of statewide testing. 


President Obama speaks against “too much testing” and proposes a 2 percent limit on class time spent on test prep.


In December, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaces NCLB, returning standards to state control. The federal government is explicitly forbidden to interfere, lobby or offer incentives to adopt Common Core. However, Common Core remains in place in many states, including Hawai‘i.


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dies, creating the possibility of a tie vote on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a suit asking for an end to collective bargaining in public unions. The case had already been argued and was headed for a close vote. Victory would deal an unprecedented blow against labor in the U.S. In the event of a tie, collective bargaining remains the law.



Immersion Conversion

Despite some school successes, Native Hawaiian charters feel threatened by underfunding. 

At Native Hawaiian immersion Kamakau Lab in Kāne‘ohe, the Iokepa-Guerrero ‘ohana “learn and do as much as we can,” says Noelani, far left, with Maui, Pono and Lilia.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino 


Living on an island nurtures a keen appreciation of both our interdependence and Native Hawaiian culture. “The isolation allows the community to grow the language,” says Kalehua Krug, a charter school board member and educational specialist and administrative officer for the Department of Education. “What the UH-Hilo Hawaiian language college has grown with its teacher programs has made Hilo the mecca of Hawaiian language.”


Six of 21 immersion schools are charters; five overlap at certain grades with the kaiapuni schools, which instruct solely in Hawaiian until grade five. Of those, two scored very well on the state’s 2015 assessment: Ke Kula ‘o Kamakau Lab in Kāne‘ohe (8) and Ka ‘Umeke Ka‘eo in Hilo (15). 


“The kids are doing very well in school. Their grades are good,” say Pono and Noelani Iokepa-Guerrero, whose children, Lilia and Maui, attend Nawahi Lab in Hilo. “But most importantly, they are confident and proud of who they are as Hawaiians. They know their native language and their culture and can function well in both worlds.”


But, due to the funding difference—charters get $5,000 less per pupil than regular public schools—and tighter oversight that takes staff away from teaching to do compliance, all this is threatened, says Krug. “The way it’s going we’ll have to shut down all charter schools, not just immersion schools,” he says. “We need at least $8,000 per pupil. It’s borderline discrimination.”



Testing is a sore spot. In fact, says charter commission chair Catherine Payne, “The DOE did a very poor job translating Common Core tests into Hawaiian. The first tests were not usable.” 


“We provide two pathways of education, one in English, one in Hawaiian,” says Nawahi Lab director Kauanoe Kamanā. “But we are forced to provide standardized tests in English, which is not the language of instruction until students get to fifth grade. This is an issue and we did challenge it.”


At Nawahi, Kamanā points out, “All our students take Japanese from the first grade on, mandatory. We have a 100 percent graduation rate and 80 percent attend college. We have concurrent enrollment of juniors and seniors at the university in Hilo, and not a select group—we get them all in.” Nawahi, like its sister school Kamakau, gets the benefit of being a Lab School linked to the university.


“We recognize the importance of data and accreditation,” says Kamakau director Meahilahila Kelling. “I understand being accountable to the stakeholders. Because of the foresight of our previous director, we developed our own assessment eight years ago when the state didn’t have a reliable method. Butall the minutiae that needs to be collected [for fiscal oversight] takes away from the day to day.” 


As Krug says, “People want to use their tax dollars for the education of their children, not for oversight. When more money comes in, we can take care of the issues of oversight. Otherwise, we may have to shut down.” In the meantime, KTA stores baggers and cashiers are speaking in Hawaiian.



Power to the Schools

A grassroots education initiative hopes to extend charter school freedoms to regular classrooms.


Ready for another school reform? 


Parents, teachers and citizens experiencing education policy fatigue may not buy the idea that the next big fix is the one that will finally work. (After all, that’s what charter schools were supposed to do.) But here it is: school empowerment. “It’s where schools have more autonomy, more local control,” says Randall Roth, law professor and author of Broken Trust and The Price of Paradise.


The home-grown movement was kicked off by frustrated principal Darrel Galera and advocates who banded together in 2014 to form the Education Institute of Hawai‘i. “The Department of Education is highly regulated, highly top down, and all about one-size-fits-all education,” says Roth, who is a past president and chair of EIH, adding, “The overreliance on diagnostic standardized tests, not to identify the needs of students, but to hold teachers accountable,” eroded school communities.


When a poll of principals echoed Galera’s sense of helplessness and despair, EIH quickly filled its ranks with an impressive who’s who of educators and obtained a grant to send a 27-member delegation to Mainland schools to collect best practices. It has spread the message in town meetings, newspaper op-eds, testimony before the Board of Education and in a recent conference held at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. 


“The Institute is trying to find a catalyst for the kind of change that is needed,” Roth says. One key tool is Most Likely to Succeed, a DVD about  empowerment theory advanced in a book of the same name by education writer Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist. A condition of screening the DVD is that a group discussion must be held; 175 showed for a recent event.


With experienced hands such as Ben Cayetano, Walter Dods, KSSK radio personality and Takitani Foundation chair Michael Perry and First Lady Dawn Amano Ige on board, Roth feels that this is one school initiative that is likely to succeed—and affect the entire public school system, not just the 5 percent that are in charters.



Where are the children?

Hawai‘i’s unique statewide system.

The Breakdown 

Charter schools take a small bite out of the state’s overall student population and resources. About 15 percent attend private schools. 


Official Fall enrollment

Total Enrolled: 218,382

source: hawai‘i state department of education, latest data from 2013-14




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