Our Schools: Has Anything Changed?

In May 2001, we published "The Death of Public School," taking the state Department of Education to task for failing to do its job. It's been five years—has public education gotten any better?


Published:

(page 5 of 5)

Charter Schools to the Rescue?

With all the commotion caused by the attempt to give schools more flexibility to control their budgets and design their own curricula, it's easy to forget that we already have 27 schools doing exactly that, and with fewer dollars.

In 1999, state lawmakers allowed existing public schools to convert to semiautonomous charter schools—a response to the growing public cry for school choice. A year later, the Legislature went a step further, approving the creation of new charter schools.

Like regular public schools, charter schools receive state funding and are held to the same academic standards. They are exempt from many DOE rules and state laws, except when it comes to health and safety, equal rights and collective bargaining. All charter school principals, teachers and other staffers must belong to HGEA, the HSTA or UPW.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools manage their own budgets, set their own policies and hire their own staff. They are free to design their own curricula, attracting students and parents who share the same approach to education, which could be rooted in anything from Hawaiian culture to arts and sciences to technology.

Hawaii's charter schools also possess a built-in accountability system lacking in the DOE.

"Because we get paid by the state per pupil, if our students are not succeeding and our parents are not happy, then they won't send those kids here and we don't have any money," says Susan Deuber, principal and CEO of Voyager Charter School in Kakaako. "That's a very different model from your neighborhood school."

The heads of these charter schools aren't just principals, either. They are entrepreneurs who must know, or quickly learn, how to run their schools like businesses.

harter schools represent real choice in public education. Since 2000, charter-school enrollment has climbed every year, hitting 5,500 this past school year.

John Swindle and Sandra Chun don't mind commuting outside of their Liliha neighborhood to send their 7-year-old son, Makana, to Voyager School in Kakaako. Since enrolling Makana in the charter school last year, they've noticed a huge improvement, not only in his academic performance, but in his attitude toward school. photo: Karin Kovalsky

Sandra Chun and John Swindle, for instance, decided to enroll their first-grade son, Makana, at Voyager, after they realized he wasn't happy at their neighborhood DOE school in Liliha. They felt that Makana's previous school was too regimented, especially in how it disciplined students.

"I'm not blaming that school, but it just wasn't working," says Swindle. "Makana just did not want to go. He'd come home crying. He wasn't himself."

When the family visited Voyager for the first time, they were struck by the difference in the school's atmosphere. "As soon as you walk in, the feeling you get is so embracing, so nurturing, and they welcomed us," says Chun.

Swindle says: "I never thought about charter schools as an alternative before. Voyager compares itself to Montessori schools, so they set high standards for themselves. Makana is thriving there."

So how are these models of flexibility and accountability treated by the bureaucracy? Like "an afterthought, a stepchild, a postscript," according to a position paper issued by the Hawaii Business Roundtable last December.

From the start, charter schools have not been given fair funding from the state. The inequity is glaringly obvious in the amount of money allocated per pupil: Charter schools receive about $5,700, while traditional schools get an average of $9,300.

What's more, startup charter schools must pay for their own facilities out of those state funds. Regular DOE schools don't.

Voyager, for instance, spends $300,000 annually to lease its space and pay off a private loan it took out to renovate the facilities. In total, Hawaii's charter schools spent $3 million on facilities last year, according to the Charter School Administrative Office.

"The state Constitution says that the government must provide facilities for public schools, and charter schools are public schools," says John Thatcher, principal of Connections Charter School in Hilo. "I think that's been ignored."

This legislative session, lawmakers introduced several bills to minimize the disparity in funding between traditional public schools and charter schools. But these measures, especially those that would provide money for facilities, appear unlikely to succeed anytime soon.

"The original vision of the charter schools was they weren't going to be given facilities, because that would be a big burden on the department," Takumi says. "All these charters want their own campuses, they are not cheap enterprises. I do think if the funding per student is adequate, the facilities question won't quite have the tension it has had in the past."

The result? Charter schools are still caught up in the bureaucratic red tape they'd hope to escape.

Hawaii's six-year-old charter school law is still considered one of the weakest in the nation, earning a D in a study by the Center for Education Reform. The national advocacy group gave our law poor ratings because of the inadequate per-pupil funding, the cap on the number of schools allowed, the lack of exemption from collective bargaining agreements, limited legal and operational autonomy and the absence of multiple chartering authorities.

All of these deficiencies can be attributed to the control the state still wields over local charter schools—control that our government is not willing to relinquish.

The state Constitution says that the government must provide facilities for public schools, and charter schools are public schools. That's been ignored.

— John Thatcher, Connections Charter School

"The DOE has an inherent conflict with the charter schools," Lingle says, "because they view—and I don't think they should—charter schools as taking money away from them. That's money they can't keep in the central office, because it has to be allocated to the charter schools. They don't like charter schools, they don't want charter schools, so they have a conflict."

That's why Lingle has proposed a separate chartering authority for Hawaii's charter schools. Several states with stronger charter laws have multiple chartering authorities, responsible for approving the creation and supervision of new schools. In Hawaii, there is one chartering authority, the state Board of Education itself, which already monitors the DOE's schools.

This conflict of interest is also built into the Charter School Administrative Office. While this office was created to represent the interests of Hawaii's 27 charter schools, its director must also report to the BOE.

Our Democratic-controlled Legislature isn't eager to see many more of these startups created—despite the solid track record they've established over the past six years. Hawaii now has had 23 startups, the maximum number allowed under state law. While many groups want to start new charter schools, lawmakers have yet to lift the cap.

Interestingly, state law places no cap on the number of existing DOE schools that can convert to charter schools. Only four have done so.

"Charter schools are only getting about half of the resources that regular DOE schools are getting, and we're doing just as well," says Thatcher. "Can you imagine what we'd be able to do if the state gave us the same funding?"

Getting any kind of change in the system is slow and difficult. Over the past five years, more than 50,000 students have graduated from Hawaii's DOE system, without seeing any improvement in their public schools.

This upcoming school year more schools will be added to the 40 already being restructured under NCLB, and the state is betting our tax dollars that Act 51 will finally "reinvent" our failing public school system.

It all leaves us wondering what possible change another five years will bring.

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