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?

photo by Jimmy Forrest

In May 2001, HONOLULU Magazine published “The Death of Public School,” taking the state Department of Education to task for failing to do its job. By almost any measure, Hawaii schools—the only schools in the nation run by a state government—were broken. At that time:

• Hawaii ranked seventh lowest out of 50 states, with a D- for standards and accountability, an F in school climate, a D in improving teacher quality and a C in adequacy of resources, in the 1998 National Education Association’s Quality Counts survey.

• Hawaii students scored lower than students across the nation in a standardized test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

• The DOE’s method of funding its 270-plus schools actually contradicted its stated purpose of funding schools equitably, with some schools in higher-income communities getting more money than those in poorer areas.

• The inequity among public schools was obvious in other ways, from the condition of their campuses to the quality of their teachers.

It’s been five years since we published “The Death of Public School.” Enough time for more than 50,000 students to have graduated from Hawaii’s government-run school system.

Since then, a Republican governor with a new approach to public education was elected. A career DOE worker became superintendent of schools. No Child Left Behind became federal law, requiring that all of the nation’s students become proficient in core academic subjects. And, in 2004, the state Legislature created the controversial Act 51, its own version of school reform that would purportedly bring equity to school funding and make the DOE more efficient.

Plenty has changed. But is anything better?


The Big Picture

Every May, we take a hard look at public education in Hawaii. As we point out in every piece, there are outstanding principals, talented teachers, committed parents and motivated students doing the best they can in the system they’ve got. The system itself is what stands in the way of their success. While they may not enjoy seeing their school’s ranking on our chart, we can’t think of a better way to improve a government agency than to talk openly about its performance.

We’re not the only ones worried about public education in Hawaii. Little has improved in the minds of the DOE’s own customers—students and their parents. According to the department’s School Quality Survey, satisfaction among those two groups has remained flat over the past three years.

Hawaii residents in general think our public schools have gotten worse, according to the DOE’s own 2005 Hawaii Opinion Poll on Public Education, in which 80 percent of respondents gave local public schools a C or below, compared with 71 percent in 1998. The poll also revealed that more residents think Mainland public schools are better than ours. Not surprisingly, they’re right.

In the most recent test by the National Assessment of Educational Progress—considered the gold standard for measuring student performance on core subjects—Hawaii ranked among the bottom eight states in the nation. Since 2003, our students have made little or no improvement in math or reading.

Keep in mind that we are placing near the bottom of a nationwide public school system that is itself widely seen as mediocre. In a recent Zogby public opinion poll, respondents of all political stripes agreed that U.S. schools aren’t doing their job—only one in five conservatives and one in four liberals think schools are “working well to teach students all they need to succeed in life.”

Need more proof that our state DOE still isn’t serving all of its students? Consider the recently released results of a study conducted by the Hawai’i P-20 Initiative, a collaboration among the Good Beginnings Alliance, DOE and University of Hawaii. At local community colleges, about 68 percent of incoming freshmen from DOE schools require remedial English courses; about 89 percent need remediation in math.


With a budget this year of $2.1 billion—up from $1.3 billion in 2001—the DOE is the largest department in Hawaii state government, consuming about half of the state’s entire operating budget. The department also gets untold hundreds of millions more that are part of the budgets of several other state departments. This year alone, the state Legislature approved $657 million for repair and maintenance projects and, as of this writing, was on its way to approving a supplementary $351 million for the DOE.

But while legislators are forking over more money today than they did five years ago, taxpayers aren’t seeing the payoff. One thing that hasn’t changed much about our government-run school system is its remarkable ability to resist change.

>> At Jarrett Middle School, more than 60 percent of students come from low-income families, andabout 20 percent have limited English skills. But that didn’t keep the school from making “annual yearly progress” this year under No Child Left Behind—the only restructuring middle school to do so. Under the leadership of Gerald Teramae (pictured), who took over as principal less than two years ago, Jarrett launched a free, after-school tutoring program (attracting about up to half of the school’s 200 students each day) and held public meetings at the nearby Palolo Valley Homes public housing complex, where many students live, to encourage parental involvement. photo: Karin Kovalsky

The DOE employs 23,790 people—principals, teachers, support staff, administrators and so on. But it’s impossible to blame any of them for the failure of our schools, because none of them is really in charge, as we pointed out in 2001. Not even our superintendent. For example, in 2004, superintendent of schools Pat Hamamoto told lawmakers to hold her accountable and to expect results. “But first,” she told them, “you must give me the tools and the space to do the job.”

Two years later, Hamamoto still can’t hire or fire her own staff as she asked. She still needs approval from the Board of Education to name her complex area (a high school and its feeder schools) superintendents.

This is just one example of how entrenched the bureaucracy is within our school system. Any attempt to shift decision-making power from the DOE and the elected officials who fund it has met supreme resistance, if not outright hostility.

As we pointed out in 2001, no other state in the nation runs public education at the state level, with a single statewide district run by a single Board of Education. When Gov. Linda Lingle took office in 2002, her biggest education proposal was to split up Hawaii’s monolithic school district into seven smaller districts, giving each its own board. The Democratic-controlled Legislature quickly rebuffed the idea, even though many of them had favored decentralization under previous governor Ben Cayetano’s Democratic administration.

In “The Death of Public School,” we noted that the DOE couldn’t account for its own spending. It still can’t, drawing criticism from Hawaii’s state auditor in report after report. Lingle herself points out that, from 1973 to 2003, the number of students has stayed the same, with about 180,000 enrolled in DOE schools each year. But over that same period, the department’s operating expenses (even adjusted for inflation) shot up by 175 percent and its staff nearly doubled. Those extra dollars haven’t translated into higher student achievement.

“I don’t believe you can find another entity—a business, a nonprofit—that has these kinds of resources,” Lingle says. “No one can make the case that schools aren’t getting enough money. It’s because the money is not reaching down to the school level. They just keep getting more and more, and nothing has changed.”

What’s worse, our Democratic lawmakers aren’t holding the DOE accountable. When Lingle suggested a bipartisan commission to analyze the DOE’s finances and help establish a “comprehensive, detailed and understandable” accounting system, the BOE rejected the idea.

“[The DOE] can just keep going to the Legislature, and, revenues are up, they can get more money,” Lingle says. “Corporations can’t do that. You can only price your product so high before people stop buying it. What choice do people have who can’t afford to send their child to private school? They’re just stuck.”

Feds to the Rescue?

There are small signs of improvement in our schools. On the Hawaii State Assessment, the DOE test we’ve used to compile math and reading proficiency scores in our “Grading the Public Schools” chart, students noticeably improved in those subjects. About 21.1 percent of DOE students demonstrated proficiency in math, up two percentage points from 2004; 43.7 percent were proficient in reading, compared with 41.1 percent two years ago.

But the DOE can’t take all the credit for even this slight raise in student test scores. After all, the schools didn’t just get better on their own. They were forced to by the federal government.

In the fall of 2001, the Bush administration created the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), requiring that all of the nation’s students be proficient in core academic subjects by 2014. States that don’t meet those demands will face sanctions from Washington.

Since the 1960s, the federal government has given money to high-poverty, or Title I, schools, where at least 35 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, based on the belief that poverty depressed academic performance. The extra money was supposed to help level the playing field. But since then, the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income schools across the country has actually widened. For a local example, look no further than our chart, where the top-ranked schools are located in upper-middle-class areas—Manoa, Nuuanu and East Honolulu—while the bottom 10 are scattered in poorer communities, such as Kalihi, Waimanalo and Leeward Oahu.

This growing disparity is why, under NCLB, the federal government now requires states to show results in order to get those federal funds.

“Some school districts in Connecticut or Vermont have given up their federal money,” says state Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee. “The biggest chunk of change you get from the federal money is for Title I schools, and the total for that and all the rest to our budget in the state of Hawaii is $350 million. We just can’t give that all up.”

There are 37 possible NCLB benchmarks that schools must meet in order to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress,” from graduation and attendance rates to requirements for what the federal government deems to be “qualified teachers.”

But the biggest challenge schools face is ensuring that their students meet proficient levels of academic achievement. The DOE measures proficiency in math and reading with its own standards-based test, the Hawaii State Assessment. Our chart shows what portion of students has met those requirements. By 2014, these scores are all supposed to be 100 percent. That includes students who are disabled, economically disadvantaged or have limited English skills. The current average is 27.5 for math, 51 for reading.

Although the federal legislation adds another layer of bureaucracy to Hawaii’s school system, it appears to have done some good. Even its critics acknowledge that NCLB has given local schools a real kick in the butt.

“Education has always been the jurisdiction of each individual state, and NCLB is the quintessential, top-down, one-size-fits-all law,” Takumi says. “But it has been a wake-up call for schools. That’s its one saving grace.”

With an eye on the 2014 deadline, the DOE sets the bar higher for schools every three years. More and more students must score well on these standardized tests in order for schools to demonstrate adequate yearly progress. As a result, more and more schools will fail.

Hawaii now has the highest percentage of schools missing those benchmarks, as well as the highest number of schools in corrective action, according to a study by Education Week. NCLB requires states to sanction failing schools, with varying degrees of severity. Students at failing Title I schools, for instance, can transfer to more successful schools. Economically disadvantaged students who stick with a failing school could receive tutoring, paid for by the school, to supplement their instruction.

Sanctions are supposed to get tougher for schools that fail to meet their targets, year after year. Already, 41 Hawaii schools are being “restructured” by the DOE, a last-ditch effort that, under NCLB guidelines, could include replacing staff, implementing a new curriculum, decreasing decision-making at the school level, bringing in outside consultants, reorganizing the school entirely or even reopening it as a charter school.

However, when it came time for Hawaii to restructure failing schools under NCLB, it did few of these things.

No ineffectual teachers or principals were replaced for failing to prepare their students. No schools were reconstituted as charter schools. Instead, the DOE threw money at the problem, in some cases spending $200,000 to $400,000 per school on outside consultants.

The DOE did take action, Hamamoto insists. “We have complex area superintendents that become the arm of the state,” she says. “They already are my representatives, but [now they] make decisions on the budget and academic delivery of services. It becomes a lot more restrictive.”

It’s telling that even when the DOE “restructures” a school, it does very little to change it.

On average, teachers and parents in our 259 government-run schools are slightly more satisfied than they were in 2004, the last time we published our “Grading the Public Schools” chart. Student satisfaction, however, has dipped slightly. The good news—student performance on math and reading tests have climbed over the past two years, giving a boost to schools’ overall scores. All scores are out of a possible 100 percent.
2003 61% 63.8% 54.4% 43.7% 21% 49%
2004 62.1% 63.9% 53.8% 41.1% 19.1% 48.8%
2006 64.7% 64.0% 53.6% 51.0% 27.5% 52.1%



Act 51 to the Rescue?

A growing number of people both in and outside of the DOE acknowledge that public education in Hawaii, as it stands today, is not working and believe it can be “reinvented” from the inside out.

Their solution is known as Act 51, or the 2004 Reinventing Education Act for the Children of Hawaii. Backed by the Hawaii Business Roundtable, an influential association of local executives, Act 51 purports to address all of the problems plaguing public schools by bringing equity to school funding, giving principals more control over their budgets while holding them accountable for results and streamlining various functions, such as capital-improvement projects and human resources.

The most contentious aspect of Act 51 is the new formula the DOE will use to allocate funding to each school. In the past, the DOE has funded teaching and other staff positions for each school based on its student population and perceived need. As a result, the amount of money schools actually received varied wildly.

Under the weighted student formula, which goes into effect this school year, how much money each school gets depends on the number and demographics of its students. A base amount of money is allocated for each student, with more added for children with special needs, such as those from low-income families or those whose first language isn’t English.

“The money follows the student; it doesn’t matter what school the student goes to,” says Randy Moore, acting assistant superintendent of the DOE’s Office of Business Services. “Schools that are losing money will look at their budgets and say, we can’t do it. And they’re right. They can’t do it the way they’ve always been doing it. They need to say, ‘How do we do it differently, but still provide services to our students?’ It’s a huge cultural change.”

Not everyone agrees that Act 51 is the magic bullet for fixing Hawaii’s schools. Our governor, for one, has called the law “fake reform.” In 2004, she vetoed the bill, only to have her veto overridden by Democratic state legislators.

It’s very difficult to give [principals] 90 percent of [their] budget. If I give [them] the money for food service, the school might say, ‘Let’s not have lunch.’
— Rep. Roy Takumi, Chairman of the House Education Committee

In addition to providing fairer funding for schools, Act 51 is supposed to give principals more control over their own budgets. But Republicans argue that the law doesn’t deliver on that promise.

lthough principals ostensibly control 72 percent of their schools’ budgets, there are spending restrictions on all but 30 percent. These restrictions set fixed percentages on how much money principals must spend in at least seven different areas, from custodial services to employee fringe benefits. Most of the 30 percent that principals actually manage go to staff salaries. The bottom line: Principals are left with little money to try anything different.

The state DOE, in the meantime, holds onto its 28 percent share of each school’s budget, controlling spending on such institutional functions as food services and utilities.

If a school wanted to turn off its air conditioning during the winter months, save some money and use that for books, it could not do that,” says House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan. “If you wanted to save money on transportation, because you figured out a better way to do it, you could not do that. We want schools to decide what their priorities are and fill them. This system does not allow that. It’s a facade. It says the people above the school level know what’s best for these students.”

In fact, the Hawaii Business Roundtable originally recommended that principals be given control over 90 percent of their schools’ budgets, much like the model implemented in Edmonton, Canada, in the 1970s, considered the prototype for school-based management.

But state lawmakers disagreed, arguing that too much freedom would actually be bad for schools.

Takumi cites an informal survey he conducted among school principals, in which most indicated that they wouldn’t want to be in charge of non-instructional functions, such as utilities and transportation services.

“Over time, schools should be given more of their dollars and more flexibility,” Takumi says. “The policy question was how fast and over what time frame do you do this? It’s sort of like, if you’re starving to death and I give you a big steak, you’ll die if you eat that thing. You gotta start slow, have some cabbage first.”

Takumi offers up another reason for the DOE to keep control of certain services—and the funding for them—at its central office, rather than delegate them to the schools.

“It’s better to have centralized services—payroll, bus transportation, worker comp claims,” says Takumi. “It’s very difficult to give you 90 percent of your budget. If I give you the money for food service, the school might say, ‘Let’s not have lunch. Let’s save the money and use it for something else.’ I do believe there are certain responsibilities we have as a state to make sure children get a nutritious breakfast and lunch.”

Could students that aren’t doing well do better with more money? Absolutely, yes.
But you can also throw money at a junk school and nothing would change.

— Randy Moore, DOE

It’s hard to reinvent education when workers responsible for its delivery are scared of change. The task becomes almost impossible when the system overseeing those workers doesn’t convince them that change is for the better, or even trust them to feed kids lunch.

“I don’t think [the DOE] has confidence that the schools can do it on their own,” Lingle says. “I think they need to have more faith in the people at the school level, more faith in the people in the community. The DOE thinks it can do it better, but the results don’t bear that out.”

Even with the little added flexibility Hawaii schools received under Act 51’s new weighted student formula, the bureaucracy reacted as usual. Principals balked, because, under the new formula, some schools would lose money, meaning they’d have to cut from the few aspects of their school budgets they have control over—staff, supplies and programs.

This is what happens when education reform efforts hit the real world. Confronted with this outcry, the BOE immediately backpedaled on Act 51. It scrapped the DOE’s original plan for a 25 percent shift in allocations this year (full implementation would take place in three years). Instead, the board authorized a mere 10 percent shift in funding this year.

All this wrangling over the math behind the weighted student formula and the timetable for its implementation overlooks one very large, inconvenient fact: Funding doesn’t necessarily correlate with student performance.

Moore compares several elementary schools with similar socioeconomic challenges but different funding amounts from the state—among them, Kauluwela Elementary near Aala Park ($5,700 per student) and Maunaloa Elementary on Molokai ($13,215 per student). While Maunaloa receives the most money, more of Kauluwela’s students are proficient on standardized reading and math tests.

“There is no correlation between throwing more money at them and getting better results in student performance,” says Moore. “Could students that aren’t doing well do better with more money? Absolutely, yes. But you can also throw money at a junk school and nothing would change.”

Here we identify the single biggest gain made within each of the DOE’s four levels of schools—elementary, middle, high and multilevel.
Ala Wai Elementary HONOLULU 141 D B-
Kawananakoa Middle HONOLULU 41 C+ B-
Radford High CENTRAL 61 D+ C
Honokaa High &

*We compared only schools that provided complete scores—teacher, parent and student surveys as well as test results—in both 2004 and 2005.


What About All Those Run-Down Buildings?

One of the most illustrative (if not depressing) examples of how tough it is to fix anything in our government-run school system is the bureaucratic process for construction and repair. The average age of the DOE’s 270-plus schools—comprising more than 4,000 buildings—is 59 years old. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of work to be done on them.

Our 2001 story “The Death of Public School” featured photos of several deteriorating schools—dilapidated buildings, leaky roofs, broken windows. We talked about how Waianae High waited 25 years to get a cafeteria, how Maili Elementary students suffered with heat, dust, flies and odors before finally getting air conditioners.

Back in May 2001, the DOE’s backlog of repair and maintenance projects totaled about $641 million. Today, it’s estimated at $525 million.

Another goal of Act 51 is to make it easier to fix a school. Prior to the law’s creation, even DOE-related repairs were handled by the Department of Accounting and General Services (DAGS).

Last year, current Hawaii Business Roundtable chairman David Carey, the president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises, told HONOLULU Magazine: “In one of the meetings with DAGS and the DOE, we had them explain, soup-to-nuts, the actual process to get a project done. If a project went really, really well, it took three years. We saw what all the steps were, where all the paperwork went and the business guys in the room, their eyes went like this [opens eyes wide]: Oh my god, I can’t believe that’s what we have allowed to evolve in our state systems.”

Even after Act 51, getting the state to fund, plan and complete a project is still so complicated that, after we reviewed three related handouts and a flowchart provided by Moore, we were still fuzzy on the process.

Projects happen in three major phases: planning, designing and construction. Believe it or not, the state Legislature must approve funding for each project at every one of these phases.

Schools aren’t in charge—lawmakers are. Here’s where the process gets even trickier. Say a legislator has his own pet project—maybe a school in his district really wants a new band room, but it’s not one of the projects submitted for Legislative approval. That legislator can, and often will, insert his project into the bill, bumping down other DOE-selected projects in priority.

“As a representative, say I’m fighting for a project in my community and I have more power than others in the Legislature, it comes at the expense of those who don’t,” says Finnegan. “For instance, I have a school in my district, and it needs an elevator, because it has a lot of handicapped students. In a system you can trust, you know you’ll eventually get that elevator. In our system, your project can get bumped down, and not based on need or anything like that. That’s unfair.”

But even once those projects clear the Legislative approval process, they’re still not guaranteed the money. That money must then be released by the governor, who usually doesn’t approve funding for all of those projects. That’s because she must consider how much the Department of Budget and Finance says the state can actually afford to finance.

f, at any one of these phases, a project is rejected, it automatically- goes back into the schools’ capital- improvements backlog. Meanwhile, projects that get the green light must still work their way through the state’s lengthy procurement process before construction can begin.

I can count on one hand how many people have been asked to leave or terminated in the Honolulu district because of their inability to teach over the last five years.
— Gerald Teramae, principal

If all goes well, a minor project, such as installing a new toilet, could be completed in eight months, while a major project, such as re-roofing a building, could take up to 22 months. Construction of new facilities—a new building or an entirely new school—typically takes two to four years.

To be fair, this isn’t just how buildings on our DOE school campuses are built and fixed. The process applies to all of the departments in our state government. We just happen to notice broken toilets, doors and windows faster when our kids have to use them.

Apparently, this process is so perplexing that even our government officials can’t agree on how much money is being spent on school projects. Earlier this year, Lingle and Republican lawmakers got into a public squabble with the DOE and Democratic lawmakers when she refused to release $213 million for school repair and maintenance. Republicans argued that the DOE had yet to spend money from earlier legislative appropriations; the Democrats backed the DOE’s claim that all of the money released had already been spent or tied to specific projects.

All while students at Kalaheo High School continued to put up with run-down restrooms, and students at Farrington endured another week with a hole in one their classroom ceilings.

Under Act 51, the “delinking” of DAGS and the DOE has cut out one step in this unwieldy process, at least on Oahu. Last year, about 200 Oahu DAGS employees transferred to the DOE and already, principals are seeing faster responses to their schools’ smaller repair and maintenance requests—the ones that don’t require Legislative approval.

Act 51 aims to update other aspects of how the DOE does business—upgrading its antiquated technology systems and creating a new CFO position in the department to oversee its budget, accounting and procurement. The fact that the DOE hired Randy Moore, a longtime business executive and former CEO of Kaneohe Ranch, is another move in that direction.

“Changing public education is going to be an evolution, not a revolution—somewhat structural, somewhat cultural,” says Don Horner, president and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, who served as chairman of the Hawaii Business Roundtable last year. “There’s a variety of system constraints. The HR side alone—you have 20,000 employees on 3×5 index cards. There are systems that need to be implemented.”

Despite these improvements, there are other signs that the bureaucracy is still alive and well in our government-run school system, still resistant to change as it was when we analyzed it in 2001.

Job protection is still built in all the way to the top, thanks to the representation of Hawaii’s powerful public-worker unions—the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the United Public Workers.

Teachers’ salaries are still determined by how long they work in the system, as opposed to the results they deliver. Underperforming teachers can’t be replaced by principals, even at schools that are restructuring under NCLB.

“If I had a teacher who’s hurting kids by not teaching them to their full ability, I’d like to have that authority to say, ‘I need to let you go,'” says Gerald Teramae, principal at Jarrett Middle School. “Right now, it might take one, two, even three years from now before anything happens. I’m not a patient person, and I cannot sacrifice those kids for those years till I eventually get that teacher out. I can count on one hand how many people have been asked to leave or terminated in the Honolulu district because of their inability to teach over the last five years.”

Hawaii still struggles with its chronic teacher shortage in the public schools. But even that hasn’t been enough incentive for the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board to lift its protections against new teachers trying to enter the system.

Right now, Hawaii is struggling to meet an NCLB requirement that all secondary teachers be “highly qualified” in the subjects they teach, meaning that have a college degree in that area or its near equivalent.

t the same time, the Hawaii Teachers Standards Board discourages potentially highly qualified teachers from applying to the DOE by requiring them to jump through hoops to get a state teaching license. More often than not, experienced teachers, even those licensed in other states, must still go through a “state-approved teaching certification program” and a battery of tests before the state of Hawaii considers them “certified.”

What we need are qualified teachers in the classroom,” Lingle says. “Let people who have a degree, gone through a course of study, don’t have a teaching certificate but, at a minimum, know their subject, into the classroom. If your goal is highly qualified teachers, then your actions should match that.”

Here we identify the single biggest decline made within each of the DOE’s four levels of schools—elementary, middle, high and multilevel.
Red Hill Elementary CENTRAL 77 B C
Kapolei Middle LEEWARD 69 C D
Baldwin High MAUI 98 B- C-
Kalanianaole Elementary
& Intermediate

*We compared only schools that provided complete scores—teacher, parent and student surveys as well as test results—in both 2004 and 2005.


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.