Lynn Finnegan’s life has rapidly switched tracks, but the fact that both tracks have run in parallel for so long through her career makes that change less of a jolt. No sooner had the dust settled after the Nov. 2 general election than the news came out: Finnegan, 40, former state House minority leader and Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, was tapped as executive director of the Hawaii Charter Schools Network.
She’s also a mother and has served on the board at Voyager Public Charter School in Kakaako, the elementary where her daughter is an alumna and her son still attends. That personal attachment underlies a long-standing record of championing charter schools in the Legislature.
Ironically, ethics rules will prohibit Finnegan from lobbying lawmakers for one year, but she’s convinced there’s lots of outreach she can do in the community meanwhile.
The organization, under various names, dates back some 20 years to the creation of the state’s charter schools movement; it primarily exists, she said, to be the advocate for the movement in general, working to help Hawaii’s 31 charter schools get the resources they need to succeed in educating about 9,000 students.
That includes pushing for better training of the individual school board members so that they can avoid some of the landmines that can damage the charter-school brand overall. One recent controversy: accusations of nepotism at Myron B. Thompson Academy, which operates largely as an online school.
Finnegan embraces her new assignment as a post "that could satisfy my need and want to make a difference."
As for a political future: "I haven’t closed the door on it." But, she added, "I definitely am very focused on where I am."
QUESTION: Is the situation at Myron Thompson Academy indicative of the need for better oversight?
ANSWER: In analyzing just that situation … I would hope — and this is my own personal opinion — but I would hope that if there was a family member being hired, that it would be disclosed or made known to the board, especially if it were for a long period of time, and especially if it were for multiple people. … And if the board would allow that kind of practice to take place, that it would be ever so scrutinized as to keeping things above board and making sure it’s working well for the school and for results.
So it isn’t necessarily that all relatives are not OK to hire, but the concern that most people would have is you need to protect the autonomy for the charter schools because that’s what works for innovation. But in the same breath you need to make sure that piece of accountability is there, to make sure no true wrongdoings take place. When that doesn’t work, then a particular bad occasion makes the charter school movement or brand not look good.
And you have to allow that in the charter school movement, (that) there will be times when something may not happen the way we want it to happen. But that’s part of a risk-and-reward thing all across the charter school movement. And we’re finding that when you risk that much, your reward is plentiful with finding schools that can turn around 90, 100 percent proficiency when people said that wasn’t possible. … It’s a fine line: We want to make sure none of the bad stuff happens, and the bad decisions being made, but we have to allow some room for the innovation and the efficiencies to take place.
Q: What’s the function of the Hawaii Charter Schools Network?
A: The organization is an advocacy organization for the charter school movement … an advocate for the schools as a whole … and with that it’s about delivering quality, high-performing schools and protecting autonomy but being able to give that environment where the teachers and principals and the boards are able to address the needs of the students without the constraints of all the rest of the bureaucracy, to give you more flexibility and autonomy to do that.
Q: So if you see a school is struggling, you might go and make suggestions or provide outside advice?
A: This is where the lines need to be drawn really clearly for the sake of the charter school movement. … The accountability measure and the watchful eye should be the CSRP, or what’s called the Charter School Review Panel. …
I feel that my role especially for this coming year is to help people understand public charter schools. … We’ve been talking about charter schools as an education reform and autonomy and local decision-making and innovation and all of that across the nation. But yet when you ask the question "What are charter schools?" people don’t really know. The only way that you can really understand what a public charter school is, aside from its being paid for by taxpayer dollars, is to see the efficiencies that happen in the charter schools, to see the innovation that actually happens in charter schools.
The expectations of charter schools are very high, and they should be, but every once in a while you might find a thing that might happen in the charter school movement where people go, "See? Those charter schools are bad."
The charter school movement is not going to produce 100 percent high-performing schools … but the ability to have accountability, where if the charter school is not performing, that it’s much easier to say, "Hey, you were given this charter, here’s this contract that says you were going to deliver these things. You did not deliver these things; therefore we have to shake it up or we have to close you down." That model across the country has served the charter school movement very well. And we’re starting to see that 90 percent in certain schools across the nation, in very socioeconomically challenged environments, that 90 percent are graduating from high school ready for college.
Some of the things that you can’t measure by test scores. … You will find through culture-based schools, through Hawaiian culture-based school or whatever, that you will take a child that was five, six, seven years behind in reading that improves in one year alone by three or four grades. And in some cases where these kids didn’t even want to go to school … now not only are they learning and doing well but they’re going to school and they’re liking it.
Q: Why is the performance of charter schools so uneven? Is it that there’s not enough follow-through, that once you get your charter they tend not to circle back and check up on you?
A: What we’re learning across the nation is that you have the great examples of boards that know what they’re doing, and some boards — they’re all volunteer boards — they actually don’t have training on how to be a board member. … Our hope is to make sure that we will develop a system that will help offer good, solid training for the board members … and make sure our schools and their executive directors all know that it’s a very important job. … (They) should be asking the questions, "Here is the charter: How are we doing? Where are the test scores? How will we improve?"
Q: How did you get to this job?
A: I’ve worked really closely with the charter school movement as a whole, first being a parent board member at Voyager Public Charter School, and then being elected, and through that being a part of the Legislature, just really advocating for charter schools.
Q: So when you were first elected to the House, your charter-school involvement provided the grounding for your political career?
A: It was definitely from this grounding. We were choosing a school for my daughter to go to … (and) as we were looking we found Voyager Public Charter School, and we learned what a charter school was.
Q: How far behind the curve is Hawaii in the charter school movement?
A: When you talk about our legislative laws as to how they rate charter school laws across the nation, our charter school law ranks, I believe, somewhere in the low 30s out of 40 states that have charter schools. So there’s a lot of areas where we could do improvement, and it seems like our legislators as well as our new governor and lieutenant governor are supportive of charter schools. We want to be able to support President Obama in his need to see charter schools across the nation, and really push the message of high-performing charter schools that are choices for parents in the public education system.
Q: What kind of improvements to the law would you be advocating in the coming legislative session?
A: The common thread is how might we be able to have equality of funding; the second would be, how can we support charter schools with facilities funding? … Currently as it stands these charter schools are operating within their per-pupil amount, which is just their operational funds, and they’re paying facilities costs out of that. … What happened last year just because of the overall economy: The charter schools took what was first given to them as a formula through the law, which ended up being $8,000-plus, I believe, per pupil … (and then) the funding went down to $5,363 per pupil. That’s a significant drop from the formula that was in the law.
Q: So charter schools suffered the same budget hit as other state programs due to the recession?
A: It was through the budget process. But I would argue that with that budget process, that the charter schools actually, in my opinion, have taken a much larger cut than any other department had to, or at least the Department of Education had to, per pupil. So a lot of the schools are on a very tight budget this year. And we hope to see that there’s a possibility for some emergency funding for these charter schools.
Q: To some extent, would you be like a public affairs person for the schools?
A: In some ways, because throughout the time that I’ve been a legislator it’s natural for me to talk about these charters because my passion has always been for education. Being a parent that needed to look for schools for my son and my daughter … we truly need to do everything that we can to give that child an opportunity at a quality education, no matter what socioeconomic background they come from. So I’m really passionate about that.