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Editorial | Island Voices

Reforming Hawaii’s charter schools: 5 myths and 5 realities

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This year there is a major reform bill for Hawaii’s charter school system. Some of these "reforms" are based on misinformation or myths. Here are five examples:

Myth No. 1. Charters have too much freedom.

Reality No. 1: Charters are public schools, with public employees. They are subject to the same collective bargaining, academic standards and tests as our Department of Education schools. They receive less funding for operations, and little or no support for facilities. Their flexibility lies in the decision-making at the school level, not burdened by the red tape of the DOE. There is no evidence that charter schools have more administrative or academic problems than DOE schools.

Myth No. 2. A new "performance contract" will dramatically improve accountability.

Reality No. 2: There has always been a contract, and it was called a Detailed Implementation Plan, or DIP. Charters always needed to get permission to significantly deviate from it. But the DIPS were often not detailed enough or consistent from school to school. The real "flaw" in the ointment is the lack of administrative rules required by the courts. The new reform bill is without administrative rules for most major accountability enforcement. Nice contract; no teeth.

Myth No. 3. The charter school office is not important and too expensive; we should privatize those functions.

Reality No. 3: School systems are balanced on a three-legged stool, the three A’s: advocacy, accountability and administrative support. The reform bill will saw off two of the three legs. In our DOE, 40 percent of the funding (more than 2,000 positions) goes for state and district support people who are NOT involved in instruction: eight for every DOE school. Charters have 0.26 for every school. At the school level, DOE averages about 30 administration people; charters, 11.

These folks deal with the internal procedures and with other departments, such as Human Resources, Labor, Department of Accounting and General Services, Budget and Finance, retirement, etc. No one is suggesting the DOE support system is not needed. The charter office uses only 2 percent of all the state charter funding, far less than our DOE system. Those other departments prefer, actually need, to have one point of contact for all the charters. The bill seeks to eliminate the charter office, and would require each and every charter (now 32) to be calling up these departments — pestering them, for information, guidance and services. This is institutional chaos.

Myth No. 4. Our mainland experts know Hawaii well. They say Hawaii charters will have no trouble purchasing services from outside consultants — just like on the mainland. They promote a "model law," with many fine features based on the mainland experience.

Reality No. 4: The mainland is different. There are only five states like Hawaii that require collective bargaining. They have thousands of charters and hundreds of consultants and service organizations, charter management organizations, districts, authorizers, state support networks, conferences, etc. We don’t. And those who insist we do have never provided even a tentative list of how the private sector would pick up the slack.

The bill to select someone to manage the transition indicates that it is the mainland folks who are supposed to help the BOE select this person. There are no requirements that the transition team know anything about Hawaii, the DOE, the other state departments or our public sector unions. In other words, let’s bring in some folks who will need to spend months just learning how to pronounce our names, let alone understand the ins and outs of our administrative system.

Myth No. 5. A new commission can handle both accountability and coordinate the privatization of state support jobs.

Reality No. 5: All charters already must be re-authorized every five years. They haven’t even started on this. It is the most dramatic accountability reform since we first passed the charter law. They can review only six charters per year. And there are 17 applications for new charter schools! This group is going to be very busy.

It is not going to have time or staff to fill in the service gaps. Its executive director will not be an advocate for success, but a chief of police for compliance.

The DOE is not riddled with semi-idle staff just waiting to fill up their days helping the charters on top of the DOE schools.

While the current governance structure may need improvements, it is not a "Frankenstein" as has been said. We do our public charter students a disservice if we isolate them from a strong advocate and support system.

We may be on the verge of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

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