Can Hawaiians Save the Public Schools?

When Native Hawaiians got fed up with the state’s failure to educate their children, they took public education into their own hands. Now Kamehameha Schools has come to their aid.
Hawaiians are the largest ethnic group in public schools, 26 percent of all students. But by almost any measure of student achievement, they fall below nearly all other ethnic groups. Last year, a study by Kamehameha Schools found that:


o Hawaiian students rank at the bottom in standardized tests scores, trailing Department of Education averages by at least nine percentiles.

o Hawaiian students are less likely to graduate than their peers.

o One of out of five Hawaiian high schoolers will repeat a grade.

o More than half of Hawaiian students in the DOE come from low-income backgrounds.

o Hawaiians have the highest rate of juvenile arrests among all major ethnic groups.

Over the past decade, Hawaiians got fed up with the state’s failure to educate their children. These Hawaiian educators, community leaders and parents decided to take public education into their own hands, joining the charter-school revolution already under way in Hawai’i.

Big Island educator Kü Kahakalau led the charge. She taught Hawaiian language for 15 years at schools in the DOE. By the early ’90s, she noticed a disturbing trend among her Hawaiian students at Honoka’a High School.

“I realized that the only class they were making it in was my class,” Kahakalau says. “Students who produced As in my class were getting Fs in other classes. After they graduated, I saw a lot of my students pregnant, bagging groceries, in the police beat, even though I knew they had potential.”

The realization convinced Kahakalau and her husband, Nälei, to launch a Hawaiian summer immersion camp in 1992. The annual program evolved into a “school within a school” at Honoka’a in 1999. The following year, Kahakalau earned the state’s approval to transition her program into a charter school. Kanu o ka ‘Äina became the first Hawaiian-focused charter school in the state.

Others disillusioned with the DOE followed Kahakalau. Together, they founded Na Lei Na’auao, the Native Hawaiian Charter School Alliance, with the belief that Hawaiian children learn best when native culture drives a rigorous academic curriculum. Such schools must be designed and operated by the community, they say.

“Kü is the pioneer of this movement,” says Laara Allbrett, principal at Hälau Lökahi charter school in Kalihi. “She convinced many of us to apply for charters even when we weren’t ready, because there were only so many slots available for new startup schools and they were getting filled fast.”

Charter schools mean choice in public education. Historically, the only parents with options were those who could afford private-school tuitions or make time to home school their children. Everyone else sent their kids to the public school closest to home, regardless of its quality.

Halau Lokahi student Waialua Howard. Photography by Rae Huo/RJH Productions

These new charter schools draw many students who have floundered in the DOE. If the schools are successful, they may well redefine public education in Hawai’i. Roughly half of the state’s charter schools consider themselves Hawaiian-focused.

How do Hawaiian-focused charter schools differ from other public schools? Hawaiian culture affects everything they do-what subjects they teach, where they hold classes, even how they discipline students.

Hawaiian-focused charter schools sprung up in largely Hawaiian communities on O’ahu, Maui, Kaua’i, Moloka’i, Ni’ihau and the Big Island. Some are bilingual, others Hawaiian language only. Each is distinct in its curriculum and environment.

Hälau Lökahi, for instance, emphasizes science and technology. The school rents class space at several sites in Kalihi, including Pälama Settlement, and holds science classes at the nearby Kalihi and Kamaniki streams, where students conduct a water-quality survey project.

Class at Kanu ‘O Ka Äina takes place in portables, a temporary solution until the school can afford to construct its own building. The school also holds classes in “outdoor learning labs,” including a beach in Kawaihae.

Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao in Wai’anae is the only Hawaiian-focused charter school with a traditional school building. But, unlike your typical DOE school, Ka Waihona employs a kumu hula and ‘ukulele instructor.

These schools are diverse, but they face the same problems plaguing all of Hawai’i’s charter schools-most of which can be traced to their troubled relationship with the state.


The Birth of a Movement

Hawai’i’s massive, centralized DOE has maintained a monopoly on public education for decades. Previous attempts to give principals, teachers and parents more control over their budgets and operations-School Community-Based Management, student-centered schools-left them wanting even more independence.

In 1999, state lawmakers responded. They passed legislation that allowed existing public schools to convert to semiautonomous charter schools, freeing them from much of the bureaucratic red tape constricting public education. Schools need the approval of a majority of their teachers, staff and parents to convert. In 1999, two did-Wai’alae and Lanikai elementary schools.

Charter schools control their own budgets, set their own policies and hire their own personnel. They receive state funding and, like regular public schools, are accountable for student performance.

Charter schools are exempt from many DOE rules and state laws, except those related to health and safety and equal rights. However, they are still burdened by the DOE’s collective bargaining agreements, which dictate many aspects of school life. Charter-school principals, teachers and various staff must belong to the Hawai’i Government Employees Association, the Hawai’i State Teachers Association and United Public Workers, respectively.

“It was exciting-this freedom for schools to determine our own fate,” says Donna Estomago, the former principal who oversaw Lanikai Elementary’s conversion to charter. “It was like breaking from the system.”

In 2000, lawmakers went a step further, approving the creation of startup charter schools. These were brand-new schools, designing their curriculum and programs from scratch. Startups accept all the students they have room for, regardless of where they live.

More than 40 applicants sought state authorization for startup charters in 2000. Half of them wanted to create Hawaiian-focused schools-a clear response to the plight of Hawaiian students in public education.

“Hawai’i has larger schools than those on the Mainland-our high schools are off the charts,” says Jim Shon, executive director of the state Charter School Administrative Office. “Lots of people get lost in that. In many ways, I think charter schools have taken a constituency and provided services to it that nobody else has.”

Who’s Running the Show?

Since 1999, controversy has plagued Hawai’i’s charter-school movement, mainly over the state’s funding of these enterprises. Some officials in the DOE and state Legislature dismiss these issues as growing pains. After all, the charter-school movement is relatively young.

But according to the Center for Education Reform, Hawai’i has one of the weakest charter school laws in the nation. The national advocacy group gave our law poor marks in several areas: the number of chartering authorities; charter schools’ ability to exercise legal, operational and fiscal autonomy; guaranteed per-pupil funding; and exemption from collective bargaining agreements.

All of these shortcomings result from the substantial control the state maintains over Hawai’i’s charter schools. While the Legislature and DOE insist they support the movement, their decisions consistently indicate a desire to curb charter schools’ independence, rather than encourage it.

For example, several states with stronger charter laws have multiple chartering authorities, responsible for approving new charters and overseeing these schools. In Hawai’i, the Legislature established a single chartering authority-the state Board of Education itself, which already oversees all regular public schools. Obviously, there’s a conflict of interest, one with which even a few BOE members aren’t comfortable.

“Most states recognized that conflict of interest, so they set up independent chartering authorities, such as universities,” BOE member Laura H. Thielen says. “A good example is the University of Hawai’i at Hilo-it has an education department, which has been working with the charter schools there. It would make sense for UH Hilo to be the chartering authority for the 12 charter schools on the Big Island. It’s hard enough as a board in Honolulu to know what’s going on in Wai’anae. It’s impossible for us to know what’s going on on the Big Island.”

Another example of this conflict? The DOE and BOE decided not to count the years teachers spend in Hawai’i’s charter schools toward tenure in the DOE. Say a teacher works at a DOE school for 10 years, then decides to teach at a charter school for five years. If that teacher chooses to return to a traditional public school, she will still have only 10 years of service credits in the DOE system. Such a risk often deters DOE teachers from voting to convert their schools to charter.

“Why put a block up in front of people and say, ‘If you enter this experiment, which is for the benefit of the children, you personally are going to have very restrictive future employment options?'” Thielen says. “We’re punishing them for doing that, and that’s wrong.”

But DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen defends that policy. Charter schools can employ teachers that the DOE doesn’t consider credentialed, and the department has no control over the hiring or firing of their personnel.

“It makes no sense that [charter-school teachers] would gain tenure in our system-it’s almost as if a teacher hired at a private school could get tenure within the DOE and then therefore bump other teachers out of the public school system,” Knudsen says. “It’s almost like a parallel public school system. It’s not an obstacle we’re putting up, but if someone decides to strike out on their own, there are some risks. If they feel it would be an advantage to convert, then so be it.”

The state’s Charter School Admin-istrative Office offers more proof of this tug-of-war between the DOE and charter schools. Shon became executive director of the office after his predecessor, Dewey Kim, abruptly resigned-just five months after he was hired.

“As recognized by the board and the charter schools, the executive director’s position is to support the charter schools, but he is an employee of the board,” Kim, a former state attorney general, wrote in his letter of resignation. “This has caused many problems, because often the position of the two sides is not the same and sometimes at odds. This makes problem-solving extremely difficult.”

The biggest and most immediate concern for Hawai’i’s charter schools: funding. The state allocates less money per pupil to charter schools than traditional public schools and no money for facilities or capital improvements. This is especially hard on startups, which, unlike conversion schools, must obtain their own facilities.

Administrative staffer Renee Kaleiopu with students Ruth Kaeo and Kamakani Kuhia of Halau Lokahi.

“An average public school student in traditional schools gets $8,500 spent on them for operating costs and about $2,000 on capital costs,” Thielen says. “Charter schools get about $3,000 less per pupil in operating costs and about $2,000 less in capital improvements, because they get none. I don’t see how that’s fair and equitable.”

The formula for calculating charter-school funding is written into state law, with allocations based on the DOE’s most current annual financial report. Knudsen notes that it takes into account the potential federal grants available to charter schools for which regular schools aren’t eligible. Charter-school funding doesn’t include special education costs. The DOE pays for those separately. Plus, charter schools don’t foot some of the fixed costs deducted from regular schools’ budgets, such as administrative operations and utilities.

“We’re not the bad guys here,” Knudsen says. “For years, the Legislature absolutely did not fund the charter schools appropriately. A couple years ago, we needed $25 million for the charter schools and we only got $11 million-the difference came out of the regular public schools. It was unfair that we were left to make up the difference, and the only place we could take that from was the regular public schools. Funding is a lot closer now, but it’s still short.”

Charter schools have sparred with the DOE over operational problems, as well. For instance, in 2001, a holdup in state funding kept Hälau Lökahi from paying new employees for two months. That same year, Kanu o ka ‘Äina pleaded for help from a federal judge, complaining it hadn’t received funding or services for its special education students.

Schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto insists that the DOE has since worked with the charter schools to resolve such operational issues.

“Some of [these problems have] to do with restraints of the department-the charter schools are exempt from many laws, the department is not,” Hamamoto says. “In order for me to service the charter schools operationally with things like payroll, I need to follow my set of laws, because I deal with [the Department of Accounting & General Services, the Department of Human Resources Development], Budget and Finance. The charter school says to me, ‘I don’t have to do it your way because I’m exempt from the law.’ And when I say, ‘But if you don’t do it this way, we can’t accommodate you,’ then it appears the department is not being forthright in supporting them.”

The inherent tension built into the relationship between charter schools and the DOE does nothing but detract from the mission of Hawai’i’s charter schools, Shon says.

“The real issue is that principals have to spend all of their time on survival and don’t have the luxury to spend time on instruction or research,” Shon says. “Charter schools are all petri dishes out there, experiments in education, and if we really want to get the most out of these models, we have to support and fund them.”


Private Support for Public Education

By the end of 2001, the fledgling Hawaiian charter school movement needed help. The same bureaucratic red tape it was supposed to escape now threatened its survival.

Meanwhile, Kamehameha Schools was reassessing its mission. The institution, one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the state, realized it needed to reach beyond its Kapälama campus to help more Hawaiian children.

“We looked at where we were going and where the bulk of the Hawaiian students were-87 percent are in the public schools today,” says Charlene Hoe, Kamehameha’s interim head of community outreach education. “The charter methodology seemed to hold promise.”

In 2002, Kamehameha headed straight for the state Legislature. Backed by the Hawai’i Business Roundtable, Kamehameha lobbied to revise the charter law. It wanted the Legislature to allow nonprofits like Kamehameha to manage and operate conversion charter schools. The DOE provides the school facilities, staff and operating budget for conversions. In return, the nonprofits match $1 for every $4 of state funds.

It is unlikely for bills to pass, let alone get a hearing, the first year they are introduced in the Legislature. But Kamehameha prevailed. It was the first bill Gov. Ben Cayetano signed into law that year.

“This was historic legislation,” says Rep. Ken Ito, chairman of the House Education Committee at the time. “Many of these schools were struggling, and this was a new concept.”

Kamehameha partnered with other community organizations, including the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, to establish the nonprofit Ho’okäko’o Corp. Hawai’i now has 23 startups, the maximum number allowed under state law. The only room for substantial growth in the charter-school movement is for conversion schools, with 21 remaining slots available.

Waimea Middle School on the Big Island became the first public school to convert to charter under Ho’okäko’o. In June, Kualapu’u Elementary on Moloka’i made the move.

“It was almost too good to pass up,” Kualapu’u principal Lydia Trinidad says. “The partnership with Kamehameha through Ho’ökäko’o was the biggest incentive. “Now we could say what parts of the DOE were working and which weren’t. With these additional resources, we can take care of some things now, like adding a preschool to our campus or extra tutoring positions.”

For existing startups, Kameha-meha’s impact was even greater. In 2003, Kamehameha established the Ho’olako Like program to give Hawaiian-focused startups funding similar to the conversion schools. Kamehameha also provides schools with leadership training, assistance in budgeting and grant-writing, workshops for their students, donations of furniture and equipment and so on.

“Before, people thought that the Hawaiian charter-school movement was a joke,” says Alvin Parker, principal at Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao. “Kamehameha Schools absolutely certified, validated, gave the credibility of their institution to the Hawaiian charter-school movement. If I could have any educational partner in this state, it’s gotta be Kamehameha Schools.”

Last year, Kamehameha gave nearly $3 million in matching funds to charter schools with large Hawaiian populations, not counting expenses for additional programs and services. Unlike Kamehameha, Hawaiian-focused charter schools accept all students, regardless of ethnicity or academic standing. By partnering with charter schools in predominantly Hawaiian communities, Kamehameha aids Hawaiian and, to a much lesser extent, non-Hawaiian students who probably wouldn’t qualify for admission to its campuses.

“With the startups in particular, it’s important to know they were in the field doing this before Kamehameha-it’s not our inspiration,” Hoe says. “It’s their inspiration that brought us to them.”


No Comparison

With the local charter-school movement just five years under way, it may be too early to determine the schools’ effectiveness. We know that, collectively, charter-school students scored slightly higher on this year’s Hawai’i State Assessment tests than their peers in regular public schools, according to a DOE breakdown of results released in September.

However, the DOE insists these results don’t mean charter schools are faring better than regular schools.

Wai’alae and Lanikai elementary schools, the only two conversions when the test was administered, have always performed well, even in the DOE. Because they’re much larger than the startups that took the test, the two schools boosted the overall performance of charter schools. It’s the individual performances of these schools, specifically the startups, that should be scrutinized, asserts Knudsen.

“Some are outstanding, others are not,” Hamamoto says. “That would be the same with the DOE schools. To say they’re doing better than the department schools, that would be misleading.”

Charter-school advocates contend that side-by-side comparisons aren’t fair. Standardized tests don’t capture the progress of individual students, many of whom enter the charter schools because they weren’t thriving in DOE schools. By the time these students reach the charter schools, many are years behind academically.

This argument becomes more important in the case of Hawaiian students in charter schools, considering that this group has historically lagged behind other ethnic groups in academic achievement.

“Because of this huge achievement gap, what you should be looking at is what the test scores are for students in Native Hawaiian schools compared to Hawaiians in the traditional DOE system or compared to their neighborhood schools in the traditional DOE system,” Thielen says.

(Clockwise from top left): Kainoa Vagai, Chantal Mailou, Leila Hutchinson, Michelyn Pilila’au, Sariah Telona, Mateo Pilila’au and Waialua Howard.

In any case, there is abundant anecdotal evidence of the strides made by charter schools. For instance, schools such as Ka Waihona o ka Na’auao met their 2003 annual yearly progress requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind mandate.

According to research by Kameha-meha, Hawaiian students in charter schools are 70 percent less likely to be chronically absent than Hawaiian students in DOE schools.

“A measure such as attendance doesn’t sound like an academic thing, but it is,” says Sharlene Chun-Lum, project manager of Kamehameha’s Pauahi’s Legacy Lives program. “If you don’t go to school, you can’t learn. Yet these schools make kids that are high-risk-many with special needs and multiple risk factors-want to learn.”

Parents like Chrissy Pilila’au love to share their own children’s stories of success. Her oldest son, a second grader, had struggled at a traditional public school in Leeward O’ahu.

“My son was doing the best he could, but he had hearing problems as a baby, so it was taking him longer to learn and he had speech problems,” Pilila’au says. “At the last school, all they did was label him ‘special ed.’ They told me it was OK that he was failing, that I shouldn’t expect much from him.”

Pilila’au disagreed. She took her son out of that school and enrolled him at Hälau Lökahi in August. “When my son came here, a second grader, he wasn’t reading,” Pilila’au says. “This year, it’s only been about two months, and he’s already reading, and he’s so excited about it. He’s so confident now. When I told his teacher here that the last school didn’t expect much from him, she just said, ‘I have high expectations of him.’ I said, ‘I know. I love that. Thank you.'”

With stories like these, it’s hard to believe that these Hawaiian charter schools aren’t doing something right. In fact, more and more students and parents are turning to these schools every year as their choice of public education. There are now more than 5,000 students in Hawai’i’s 27 charter schools, a 15 percent increase from last year.

“People say we’re providing education, but I really think we’re providing a whole lot more,” Allbrett says. “We’re providing social reform. It’s a different level of caring for our children.