The Charter School Administrative Office looks pretty big on paper, when you count up all the people who work in the schools it oversees.
So don’t be deceived by its tiny physical presence, said Roger McKeague, 44, its new executive director. The CSAO, which provides administrative support to 31 charter schools that teach about 9,700 students, occupies a corner of a floor in the Remington College Building downtown with a staff of 10.
It’s been tough going for leaders of this office, which has gone through four other executive directors since being created in 2004. McKeague, an attorney, gained some of his government chops in the Lingle administration, working as a special assistant in the Health Department and as an analyst on the governor’s chief of staff and a policy team adviser.
McKeague’s commitment here is personal and professional. He served as acting director of the office for 21⁄2 years and has two daughters, 7 and 5, enrolled at Lanikai Charter School.
He’s been around to hear some of the most recent complaints about the schools, most notably the nepotism allegations surrounding schools such as Myron B. Thompson Academy, the uneven record of academic performance and the other management problems at other campuses.
But there are many success stories that are not getting out to the public. Some of the charter schools have waiting lists of people eager to get, as one person told him, "a private school education at a public school price." Helping the charters fulfill their potential, he said, is his goal, even if it means long hours and putting out fires for the immediate future.
"I have a cousin who’s a captain in rescue in the fire department," he said. "My dad once told me, ‘You know, your cousin went to be a fireman.’ He goes, ‘You’re a fireman, too, but in a different place.’ And that’s been the kind of jobs I’ve tended to have."
QUESTION: Some people might say charter schools are a stepchild of the Department of Education. Is that too loaded a term?
ANSWER: It could be.
Q: How would you want your operations within DOE to change?
A: Because our schools are supposed to be innovative, I think it requires our office to also be an innovative administrative office. There’s something I’m very excited about right now under Title I, which is consolidated school-wide funding. What that allows is, if you’re a Title I school, which means you have a certain level of students that are at poverty levels … even though some of your kids aren’t in that bracket, you get a certain amount of Title I money at your school to improve educational outcomes.
We also have all these other programs — you have Title II, you have Title III, you have Safe and Drug-Free Schools — we have all these different pots of money. … Something that’s never been done in this state is a consolidated school-wide funding plan, which is permitted by the feds. … We take all that federal money, state money, private contributions and everything, put it in one pot, and "do school," as opposed to the normal federal programs, where you have to worry about "supplanting."
Q: You have to avoid duplicating programs, you mean?
A: Yes. And that becomes very complicated, not necessarily the best way to get good outcomes for our students. … It’s a lot of money that has come to our state from the feds that hasn’t been used in the most efficient manner, and why in the world not? If we could improve this, it would instantly improve the potential for kids.
Q: Do you have any longer-term, lofty goals?
A: Here’s my lofty: I think that charter schools can and actually already are at some level finding new and creative ways to improve education, that are being shared. There are some schools within the department that have good programs, too. In five years, I’d like to see that a lot of these experiments have been used all over the place, that they’re really changing education statewide because we found a good model … and that the charter schools would really be not a stepchild, but they’d be leading the department.
Q: What examples of successes would you want to show people?
A: Right now, a school that’s been in the news quite regularly — and we’re trying to get them to do a better layout on some of the things they do — Myron B. Thompson. Legitimately (there are) concerns about how they’re doing things, but they actually are an accredited school that has decent outcomes.
I’m a lawyer; I’m never one to say, "Ignore the law, or ignore proper business practices," or anything like that. The schools do need to have good business practices; they do need to be professional. But I think all the discussion about business practices has overshadowed some other things that really could be talked about. They have a distance-learning component that they offer statewide. … And I’m passionate about distance learning because I think it solves a lot of issues that we’re suffering in this state.
You talk about problems with not highly qualified teachers at schools? Especially in this economic environment, if we created a more robust distance-learning component in the state, suddenly we could solve a lot of that problem, and cost less. … Things like that are absolutely the wave of the future. I believe in face-to-face for some, but I will get into a discussion with anyone who says kids can’t learn online.
Q: Do you think the charters could do more cooperative activities, more sharing?
A: There is sharing going on. … I know HTA (Hawaii Technology Academy) did offer some things that they had available to any charter school that was interested. They’re doing some amazing things with virtual learning about Native Hawaiian cultural things, like virtual tours of traditional places.
Q: Given recent reports of nepotism and other school problems, do you think the public sees the good side, too?
A: Obviously, it’s going to sound like I’m being defensive of them, seeing where I’m sitting, but I would also say that some of these experiments were being run by innovative educators, not business people or office managers. … And they make mistakes. And so, yes, we’re trying to improve that, obviously. … I said this before a Senate committee, and I wasn’t trying to be smart. They said, "What can we do to prevent this problem from happening again?" And I said, ‘Well, last year and I think the previous year, you had anti-nepotism bills before the Legislature, and they never seem to pass." It seems simple to me — and it’s OK, I’m not criticizing anybody — but it seems not to be a priority. … It needs to be tempered. And what I talk about whenever this comes up is: You need to make sure you’re hiring the best person available for the job; you need to have good hiring practices. Which is why I think straight anti-nepotism is a difficult thing in a state like this. I mean, let’s be honest. There’s plenty of family members working together in various places.
Q: How are Hawaii’s charter schools different from those on the mainland?
A: Not to say it’s completely different from all of them, but here in Hawaii, we are really community-based charter schools. … It really is about, this community wants to have a school right here. And by community, it might be based on a philosophy.
Q: Aren’t there a lot of companies on the mainland that have turned chartering into a business?
A: You have these large CMOs or EMOs (charter management organizations or educational management organizations) that do chartering. I’m not going to disparage them, some of them are doing a great job.
Q: But isn’t there a lot of scam potential there?
A: There is. I would say absolutely there is.
Q: And that’s what the Charter School Review Panel works to filter out, right? Not your office?
A: No, but because we do so much of the legwork. … The volunteer panel has done a good job, and they’ve done a lot of work as a volunteer panel. But there’s still an awful lot of things that my CFO (chief financial officer) is looking at because they (panel members) don’t have a CFO.
Q: How are you dealing with all the issues this office faces?
A: I said, "You know, we’re never going to accomplish the right things if we don’t sit down and figure it out." So we sat down and did a three-month plan. … I believe in planning in what we’re doing, because we’re not going to be able to do everything. I think this office in the past tried to do everything. … I think you’re going to find that in a lot of departments across the state, they’re having to think that way now.
Q: What’s one of your top priorities?
A: I believe in having charter schools as an alternative to the traditional system. I think there are good experiments in lab schools being performed right now, and a lot of students, they’re doing well because there are such things as charter schools today that would not be succeeding otherwise. For that to be successful means that we have to figure out a way to create the right accountability and to create the right kind of reporting, so that these successful schools, … if they’ve discovered a good new way of doing something, to disseminate that back to (traditional) department schools. … Frankly, there are things like that that are happening, but the word isn’t getting out. … We’re about the education of kids, period, not just charter school kids. I think that’s something some people miss.
Q: Do you think if the public understood that better, charter schools get more equitable funding?
A: It might be related; I think it would certainly help. … Charter schools, unfortunately, are this big a fish (holds up fingers an inch apart).
Q: So, communication is key?
A: It’s key.