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?
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.


Dan and Lori Wiley with triplets Justin, Timothy and Andrew chose Ka Waihona in part for its art, music, hula and Phys Ed. “We like the cultural component,” says Lori, a Ph.D. in audiology.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino 


The clock began to run, with many schools scrambling to create processes for procurement and documentation and, especially for those with a Native Hawaiian cultural focus, much more worried about test scores than before. Due to delays in implementing a new performance framework and the lack of data to analyze, the picture that emerged by the end of 2013 was incomplete. By 2014, however, every charter school would be called on to balance its books and justify its academic performance. 


Now there would be consequences. Now the commission had the power to close a school. This had never happened before, but now there was one very troubled school, Hālau Lōkahi in Kalihi, Native Hawaiian-centric, which had needed an extra federal infusion of $435,000 to pay off its teachers at the end of the year. The school’s own auditor had declined to certify the 2011 numbers. The staff was a group hug, including the principal’s son, two daughters, a son-in-law and a girlfriend. “The Western notion of family comes first, favoritism—that is not the case here at all,” said a teacher (and non-family member). But the commission ordered the school’s board reshuffled, dropping relatives.


In early 2013, Tom Hutton, previously the founder of the Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C., was appointed executive director of the commission. Clear-eyed, idealistic, soft-spoken, he sported a trilby hat and seemed to strike an ideal balance between leader and supporter. But he could be firm, too, and had the backing of the commission and its chair, Terri Fujii, who had 25 years of accounting experience, including a decade leading audits for Ernst & Young.


students create poi pounders in an after-school program. 

As 2013 drew to a close, and the results came in, the consequences, and headlines, hit the charter-school community hard. At the largest charter, Hawai‘i Technology Academy, former president Jeff Piontek, fired two years earlier, was charged on Nov. 22 with the theft of $150,000, allegedly spent on personal expenses that included first-class tickets to Australia and a $5,642 tab at a Las Vegas strip club. Dec. 13: Tonya Taylor of Lanikai Public Charter School was charged with stealing from the school’s PTA. Dec. 16: The state attorney general’s office carried out a raid on the Thompson Academy, a dramatic move compelled, it was said, by the lack of cooperation. Box after box of records as well as computers were removed.


 “It has become an attack on certain administrators which will be sensationalized in the news media,” said principal Diana Oshiro, whose sister was the flight attendant/elementary school head. “Please know we have done nothing wrong … ” her statement continued. “Everything we do here is in the best interest of our students.” (HONOLULU made multiple attempts to reach Oshiro; four sets of parents who initially agreed to talk withdrew later.)


The 2013 academic results were not sensational either way, good or bad. But the only non-elementary school in the entire public system to achieve Recognition, the highest Strive HI ranking, was charter Na Wai Ola (Waters of Life). Even the financial side of the annual report was cautiously optimistic.  But as new accountability measures tightened in 2013–2014, cries of pain got louder. Troubled Hālau Lōkahi racked up another $417,000 in debt, most of it to teachers; the commission asked for the resignation of the board and director in June of 2014. The Thompson Academy’s investigation hung like a black cloud over the charter’s swell new staff digs—as a virtual online school, classrooms were unnecessary—in the Richards Street YWCA. As for academics: “In this first run of the Academic Performance Framework,” the annual report summarized, “36 percent of charter schools met or exceeded the overall standard, while 63 percent did not meet or fell far below the standard.” Eight schools, or nearly 25 percent, were in the “fell far below” category.


In Nov. 2014, as the report came out, the attorney general’s office raided Hālau Lōkahi, whose debt was then past the half-million mark. In Feb. 2015, the director, Laara Allbrett, her son and his girlfriend were arrested. In March, the school was closed and its remaining students, 62 of whom had continued to show up to classrooms without teachers, dispersed.



Drafting on the wake of 1960s idealism, the charter movement took shape and culminated in a 1991 law in Minnesota. Hawai‘i’s first charters were authorized in 1994; No. 1 was Wai‘alae Elementary. Like all charters in the beginning, the school converted an existing DOE property. Today, 22 years later, Wai‘alae is stable, and it has prospered; there are no scandals. Like all charters, there’s a long waiting list to get in—a lottery is used. A legendary principal, Wendy Lagareta, retired recently, but Kapono Ciotti stepped right in.


Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

Parents say not a beat was missed. When 33-year veteran teacher-administrator Rod Todorovich and his wife, Sueli, were looking at schools, their son Vini’s teacher at the Mānoa Children’s Center “spoke quite highly of Wai‘alae,” he says. From a family of educators in Brazil, Sueli originally wanted Vini to go to Punahou or ‘Iolani. “I absolutely wouldn’t consider it,” Rod says. “Kindergarten through fifth grade would cost us in the neighborhood of $120,000—and college would still be years away.”  


Despite Sueli having volunteered at Waikīkī Elementary, “We were 110th on the list. I’m not one to orchestrate favors, the kind of stuff that compromises the quality of education in this state,” Todorovich says. The couple took a close look at test scores, “especially for the schools that had notable differences between math and language arts scores.” They signed Vini up for Wai‘alae and for Voyager, a charter school with a good reputation but less impressive facilities. (In 2015, Voyager would rank No. 1 for all public middle schools.) Wai‘alae said yes first. “Once we saw the campus, it’s a city block, such a fun play space for kids, we said, ‘This is what we want.’” Today, Vini is a second grader who, if his parents show up before his after-school program is over, refuses to leave.


As educators, the Todorovichs stay involved. “I’m not really a fan of the hammer-it-in school of teaching,” says Rod, “but his first-grade teacher really helped Vini learn to read. It’s project-based teaching, and tends to be pretty traditional, which is not a bad thing. There’s a supportive group of parents. When we got to talking about the ones who might not be able to afford $150 a week for afterschool programs, we raised about $30,000.”


At the opposite end of O‘ahu, former Matson master mariner Alvin Parker created a legacy charter from scratch with Ka Waihona o ka Na‘auao. Starting out in 2002, when the state law changed to authorize new charters, Parker took over a chicken coop for his first facilities. The second year, the school moved to the old Cornet store in Mākaha. By the third year, K-8 Ka Waihona was the top-rated school on the Wai‘anae Coast. In 2014, the oceanfront Nānākuli school and Parker’s reputation were such that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited and helped pound poi while hearing from parents and residents about the difficulties in getting federal aid and recognition for Native Hawaiian studies in the public schools.


Centered on Native Hawaiian culture and community, the school’s project-based curriculum involves children in hands-on learning. “I really liked that,” says Lori Wiley, a parent of sixth-grade triplet boys. “Charters, because they’re public schools, are held to the same standards, but have the latitude to be creative.”


Sueli, Vini and Rod Todorovich chose Wai‘alae Elementary  over a regular school and another charter; in one class, Vini learned to wire his Star Wars storm trooper helmet for  communications. 
Photos: Aaron Yoshino 

Originally enrolled in a school that ended after fifth grade, the Wiley boys “are a bit of a circus,” admits Dan Wiley, an engineer who is working on putting in the infrastructure for the Ho‘opili development. From Minnesota, he’s a total public school creature, while Lori, the daughter of Lāna‘i plantation doctor Richard Tesoro, went to ‘Iolani. Yet here they were, in Nānākuli, diving in feet first. Lori, who has a Ph.D. in audiology, is closing in on a second doctorate in special ed. “One of our boys has a learning disorder, ADHD, and another son needs special accommodations.”


“Plus, they’re boys,” adds Dan. “They’re not as good as girls at sitting down,” says Lori. Ka Waihona’s “kind of like a family,” Dan says. “And Alvin Parker is very interesting to sit down and talk with—like a walking historian. And a visionary.”


At their previous public school, obsession with test prep had done away with P.E., music and art. At Ka Waihona, every Tuesday is full of creative activity, including hula. “We like the cultural component,” Lori adds, “and, although it’s not a true immersion school, our kids are getting a wealth of cultural experience.”


By late 2015, the pain and anger in the charter community was overflowing. At meetings and school visits, school staff and parents confronted Tom Hutton, the commission’s executive director, in one instance throwing salt on him as a symbol of disrespect. The same Legislature that created the state Public Charter School Commission now created a special commission to investigate the commission.


Former Board of Education chairman and member Don Horner and BOE member and former HSTA president Jim Williams conducted a listening tour. “It really feels like they’re trying to shut down schools,” said one school principal, John Thatcher of Connections Public Charter School in Hilo. “If it’s going to go in the current direction,” warned Taffi Wise, executive director of Kanu o ka ‘Aina Learning ‘Ohana in Waimea (Kamuela), “then we won’t be a school for long—not a charter school.”


When Williams and Horner gave a summary to the BOE on Jan. 20, 2016, harsh criticisms of Hutton went public. “I am very upset that the Board of Education went out and got these complaints and published them without ever going to the commission,” says Catherine Payne, a respected retired educator, former principal of Farrington High and the commission’s chair. “When the schools say they’re being pushed to the brink, it’s because, up to two years ago, they didn’t have any accountability. We were charged. It had to be put into place. It has been hard for some, but not for every school.”



Hutton was philosophical. “We’ve made a lot of progress. Look, Myron B. Thompson deserves some credit. When Hālau Lōkahi closed, they were one of the schools who were very welcoming and took in students. When a student is short a course in the DOE system, they let them take that course with them online.”


Two weeks later, Hutton would resign. Unremarked in news reports was that, in the 2014–2015 annual charter report, the No. 1 middle school was Voyager PCS, with Innovations PCS close behind. The No. 1 public high school in the entire state? Myron B. Thompson Academy.



Said Daniel Caluya, director of Ka Wai Ola (Waters of Life): “We are very sad that he’s going to be leaving—I am, our school. I wish he had stayed a little bit longer so we could right our ship.”



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