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Tighten standards for charter schools

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The training wheels are about to come off at Hawaii’s public charter schools, and as the first one opened in 1999, it’s about time. All the research shows that raising the levels of accountability produces better results for the students, assuming authorities set the right criteria in place. Even without the research, it just makes good sense.

The Public Charter School Commission is finishing up its criteria for judging whether or not a school gets renewed for a set contract period. The state’s 34 public charter schools actually have been operating under the first set of performance contracts since 2013, after the Legislature enacted reforms to make the schools more accountable, both in academic and operational measures.

The schools then each got a one-year contract, but as a transition, the prospect of nonrenewal was eliminated as a possible penalty. The schools now have three-year contracts, due to expire in 2017, and their fate beyond that point does depend on whether they pass muster for renewal. Starting in 2017, contract lengths will range from five years for exemplary charters to one-year “probationary” contracts for schools needing improvement.

The commission’s Performance and Accountability Committee has reviewed the criteria and sent them for approval by the full commission Oct. 8, when proposed revisions will be discussed. Advocates for charter schools would do well to engage with the process.

The evaluation formula is complex, but summaries presented to the public list a well-balanced range of factors for the commission to weigh. The materials are available online (, under the “Information on Contract Renewal Criteria and Feedback” link on the home page.

For one, the administrative and organizational criteria must be rigorous; concerns about those aspects crystallized in the difficult early encounters with Myron B. Thompson Academy and, the more recent example, Halau Lokahi. The criteria being considered would crunch the numbers of assets, liabilities, debt and enrollment, as they should.

Academic criteria are based on the Strive HI performance system the standard public schools use, adapted to adjust for differences in grade levels included in schools — many charters are grades kindergarten to 12.

These measures account for at least 75 percent of the evaluation; a measure designed specifically for the school can count for up to 25 percent. This allowance seems necessary, given that some charters excel for their particular academic focus or approach.

That said, it’s clear from national figures that holding the bar higher has been beneficial.

According to a 2013 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, “closure of underperforming charter schools was a contributing factor to the overall improvement of the sector.” But state-by-state differences can be attributed in part to varying approaches to accountability systems.

In other words: Criteria matter.

Corrie Leach, spokeswoman for the advocacy and policy group National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said the organization presses for charter authorizers to adopt criteria that demand high standards and protection of the student public interest, while still preserving the independence that is part of the charter schools’ lure.

“Quality authorizing nationally is essential to creating this consistently high-performing, accountable charter sector we’re looking for nationwide,” Leach said.

That is what every state, including this one, should want for their public charter schools, as well.

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