An investigation into complaints lodged against the agency regulating Hawaii’s public charter schools could result in far-reaching sanctions including a halt to new campuses and removal of appointees to the Public Charter School Commission.
|RATINGS AND SANCTIONS
Complaints from some charter schools have prompted an investigation of the Public Charter School Commission, which regulates charter campuses. The Board of Education will be evaluating the commission’s performance against its statutory requirements and national best practices and standards to come up with an overall rating. Based on the rating, the following sanctions would apply:
The board takes no further action.
The board requires the commission to provide corrective action plans for performance measures not meeting standards, and report on progress quarterly.
MOSTLY DOES NOT MEET
In addition to corrective action plans and quarterly progress reports, the board may also direct the commission not to approve new charter schools until the board determines sufficient progress.
DOES NOT MEET
In addition to corrective action plans and quarterly progress reports as well as a halt to approvals of new charter schools, the board may remove one or more commissioners for cause.
The Board of Education, which names volunteers to the nine-member commission, launched its probe in September, following what it called “a pattern of well-founded complaints about the commission and a negative and counterproductive relationship that exists” between the agency and some of the schools it oversees. The board is responsible under state law for overseeing the commission’s performance and effectiveness.
As part of the investigation, charter schools for the first time are formally weighing in on the performance of the commission and its staff since the agency’s creation in 2012 as part of sweeping legislation to reform the charter school system. The law directs the commission “to authorize high-quality public charter schools throughout the state.”
Designed to be laboratories for innovation in public education, Hawaii’s 34 charter schools use mostly public funds to offer a free education but are independently run by governing boards under charter contracts with the commission. The schools generally enjoy more autonomy than regular public schools in exchange for more accountability.
But the level of oversight imposed by the commission and its staff has been a point of contention between the commission and schools that say the agency is too heavy-handed and routinely infringes on their autonomy. The state auditor, however, faulted the commission in a study issued last year for not acting forcefully enough to shut down a campus for financial insolvency.
Schools allege wrongs
The BOE hosted an informal listening tour with charter school leaders about a year ago before designating a three-member investigative committee to conduct a special review of the commission’s performance, both past and present. The review committee — which is not subject to the state’s open meetings law — has been tasked with drafting a report with findings and recommendations, along with an overall performance rating of either “meets,” “partially meets,” “mostly does not meet” or “does not meet” statutory requirements and national best practices and standards.
A handful of schools provided detailed testimony at a recent public hearing, outlining alleged examples by commission staff of retaliation, breach of contract, and unwarranted and aggressive correspondence about school violations.
Officials with Kanu o ka Aina Learning Ohana, or KALO, which runs a K-12 charter school in Waimea on Hawaii island, for example, said the organization faced retaliation from the commission after reaching out to the BOE last year with concerns about a perceived lack of vision and mission by the commission. School leaders shared documentation showing the commission filed complaints against the organization with the state Ethics Commission, Department of Human Services and the attorney general.
Katie Benioni, chief financial officer for KALO, said the organization prevailed in each complaint “yet wasted valuable resources that should have been directed at supporting students.”
The complaints represent “just a few examples of the lack of commission understanding of its role, no clear mission, misguided vision and organizational goals that have handicapped the charter movement since Act 130 took effect,” Benioni said, referring to the 2012 law that created the commission. “The implementation of Act 130 has been disastrous and negatively impacted student learning and the charter movement on every level.”
Loss of support
The law tightened oversight after reports of questionable use of public money, possible favoritism in the hiring of relatives, and poor academic performance at a few charter campuses.
Taffi Wise, KALO’s executive director, contends the commission has not been held accountable for its oversight of charter schools.
“I don’t even know if they like us, to be honest. It feels like they don’t like charters,” Wise said. “The commission needs to be made up of people that believe in what chartering is about, which is testing the waters, innovating, getting messy, collaboratively sharing, and finding a path so that we can improve public innovation all across Hawaii.”
Jeannine Souki, executive director of the Hawaii Public Charter Schools Network, a nonprofit offering support, said that when a central administrative office was done away with after the creation of the commission, charter schools lost an important source for technical support and advocacy similar to what traditional public schools receive from the central Department of Education offices. The commission, by contrast, was designed to authorize charter schools and focus on compliance to ensure quality.
“There was a very strong recognition that in (creating the commission) we would not have a support structure in place for charter schools … but the idea to embed some level of support was basically placed in the parking lot for later discussion and not revisited,” she said.
Susie Osborne, co-founder and head of school for Kua O Ka La New Century Public Charter School in Puna on Hawaii island, said her students have faced unusual challenges from natural disasters — including a threatening lava flow, harsh tropical storms and a dengue fever outbreak — but received no additional supports or waivers despite having to shut the school down several times.
“We actually feel like we’ve been through a war,” she said. “We asked for extenuating circumstances to be placed on our renewal contract, and it’s not there. And when we (asked) if we would have some financial or academic consideration because of the natural disasters for the time lost, we were told no.”
Several schools said they have high hopes for improvements under the commission’s new executive director, Sione Thompson, who started in September. Thompson replaced Tom Hutton, the commission’s first director, who stepped down after three years on the job.
Thompson said in an interview that the commission welcomes the feedback and is looking forward to the BOE’s report.
“The commission and the staff are very, very open to working with the board in this investigative process,” he said. “All the feedback that they can provide us is very welcome in order to understand best practices so we can best serve our students, our schools and school leaders. … The review will be excellent data for us to reflect on to see where we are doing great and other areas where we would need to do better in. We’re always looking for improvement.”
He declined to comment on specific allegations made in testimony. “I want to give due diligence and credit to the people who took the time to testify, but I don’t have any comment to validate that or not,” he said.
Under the BOE committee’s proposed timeline, a draft report would be sent to the charter school commission for review and comments next month. A final report is scheduled to be presented at a public board meeting in January.