The state Legislature took small steps this session to enhance oversight and public disclosure for charter schools, and lawmakers plan to work with the charter community on big-picture changes for the system.
"There’s been so much flexibility given to our charter schools, we had to take a half-step back," said Sen. Jill Tokuda, majority whip and chairwoman of the Education Committee. "Yes, charter schools were meant to have the freedom to explore different ways of teaching and learning, but at the same time we have to make sure they are using public funds properly."
"We have great things going on in our charter schools, but like any other system we can always improve," she added.
Charter schools are public schools that offer a free education but report to their own local school boards rather than the state Board of Education. The main piece of legislation that passed this session, SB 1174, would help shed light on who is serving on those 31 boards and what they are doing by requiring online disclosure.
Legislators — not to mention the public — have sometimes had trouble getting such data from the Charter School Administrative Office because the schools didn’t keep it up to date.
"That is a major concern," Tokuda said. "That’s like saying we’re really not sure who’s on the Board of Education."
The bill requires agendas, minutes of meetings, names and contacts for local school board members to all be posted on a timely basis on the website of the charter school office.
In response to concern that a few charter schools have made a habit of "hiring the entire family," Tokuda said, the bill also requires local school boards to develop policies "consistent with ethical standards of conduct."
Looking ahead, the bill creates a governance and accountability task force, something that the charter officials sought. The task force will identify oversight and monitoring responsibilities for the panel, the charter school administrative office and the local school boards, and develop a process for enforcement. Governance for charter schools had been developed piecemeal, and the law is ambiguous as to the roles of the various entities.
Charter schools were created to do things differently, to try new ways to educate students, free of regulations that can hamper creativity. They are supposed to offer a nimble approach, rather than the bureaucracy that can bog down a
"The local school board by law is the ‘autonomous governing body’ for the charter schools," said John Thatcher, principal of Connections Public Charter School in Hilo. "If you’ve got another body that’s trying to impose their rules and regulations, that makes life difficult and really goes against the spirit of why charter schools were formed."
The charter school office has churned through five executive directors since it was formed in 2004, and a search is under way for a new one. Part of the problem is its sometimes conflicting roles: advocating for and supporting charter schools while also doling out funds and holding them to reporting and other requirements.
The Charter School Review Panel, too, has struggled to keep up with its workload. It is made up of 12 volunteers, who attend frequent meetings that can interfere with paying jobs. They must monitor 31 charters, conduct special evaluations, review regular reports from each school and assess all new applicants for charters.
"Most panel members have full-time jobs," said Ruth Tschumy, panel chairwoman. "The work of the panel is unsustainable as we get more schools. I don’t think the panel members can keep functioning the way we have been."
Although it isn’t mentioned in the bill, the task force on governance could consider whether it makes sense to establish another chartering authority, such as the University of Hawaii, to lighten the load.
Ironically, charter schools are in some ways victims of their own success. As more charters open, they compete with each other for scarce state dollars. Alvin Parker, who headed the Charter School Review Panel when it approved Hawaii’s three newest startup schools in 2008, said some charter leaders objected because it meant less money for their campuses.
"I got a lot of flak for that," said Parker, a principal whose own charter school stood to lose money because of the vote. "It would have been real easy for me to deny the expansion of charter schools, but that wouldn’t have been ethical."
Other would-be charters are waiting in the wings, vying for more than 40 open slots for conversions and startups. The panel has been wary of approving any application without a solid financial plan and a high-quality curriculum that offers something different from what’s already available. One new applicant was turned down this month, and two others are scheduled for a vote on Thursday.
The Legislature just approved $5,867 in per-pupil funds for the coming school year, with $228 per child for facilities. The forecast for the following year calls for a smaller per-pupil amount as enrollment is expected to grow.
Charter schools had hoped to get needs-based facility funding, but instead the legislation calls for the charter office to develop a formula for such requests. The state has said it cannot afford to pay for two parallel sets of school infrastructure, one for regular schools and one for charters, especially since some are quite close to existing campuses.
"When the charter school law was first passed, part of the deal was they would not get facilities," said Rep. Roy Takumi, House Education chairman. "They realized that would be the deal breaker. At the time, the charter community thought there would be private-public partnerships, philanthropists. It didn’t take very long for the charter schools to come and say, ‘We need facilities, and it’s not fair that the regular schools have it and we don’t.’"
Takumi noted that the charter system is evolving and so are its needs, and there is a growing recognition that some schools need help with facilities infrastructure.
"I don’t think it’s anybody’s intention to shortchange charter school kids," said Curtis Muraoka, co-director of West Hawaii Explorations Academy in Kona. "It does take an act of will to examine things and say, ‘Now we’re going to be fair.’"