Red tape still tying upCharter schools are drowning in the very sea of bureaucratic regulations and red tape they were supposed to escape, supporters say.
Hawaii charter schools
Supporters say the Legislature must
address the problems
By Crystal Kua
And with money, personnel and other woes causing them to feel like sinking ships, their struggle to keep their schools afloat in Hawaii appears headed for the courtroom and other battlegrounds.
"I think the courts are going to give short-term relief, but it has to be fixed at the Legislature," said Bryan Fitzgerald, legal counsel for Connections Public Charter School on the Big Island.
But state officials say that while charter schools may be exempt from most laws, government agencies are not, and that is where conflict comes.
"On one hand they say, 'Give us our independence ... but give us everything else that you've got, as well.' And it just doesn't work that way," said Board of Education member Donna Ikeda, the board's charter school committee chairwoman.
Charter schools in Hawaii are publicly funded but are free from most laws and regulations except collective bargaining, health and safety, discrimination and federal policies. Schools are held accountable for student performance and funding through a contract or charter with the state.
Charter school proponents contend that freedom from bureaucratic regulations allows for innovation in education that traditional public schools can copy. Each charter school is run by a local board.
A 1999 law, which allowed for up to 25 charter schools, did not come with more money to fund the salaries and operations of these schools. Twenty-three schools are in operation this school year and two more are expected next year.
In recent weeks, charter schools across the state have had to contend with numerous problems, some of which are so severe that they threaten the schools' existence, supporters say. The problems include:
>> The state Attorney General's office is moving to shut down Waters of Life Charter School because the state contends that the school is $170,000 to $250,000 in the red, a deficit that school officials say is the Department of Education's doing.
>> Connections Public Charter School has threatened to sue if the DOE did not open its books.
>> A dispute between Voyager School's school board and its principal over the Kakaako school's budget and other matters led to the principal's resignation a few months after the school opened.
>> Lanikai Elementary School, one of two charter schools converted from being a DOE school, fears half its teachers may transfer to DOE schools because the teachers will no longer receive probationary and tenure status and benefits.
>> Schools like Halau Lokahi in Palama say delays in receiving funding from the state is wreaking havoc on budgets and the ability to pay employees, who are ready to leave.
>> Kanu O Ka Aina New Century Public Charter School has pleaded for help from a federal judge because it has not received funding or services for its special education students. "All we're asking for is what's in the law; we don't want a cent more," said Ku Kahakalau, Kanu O Ka Aina director.
"I think you will see a spate of lawsuits," said Libby Oshiyama, president of the Hawaii Association of Charter Schools.
Some charter schools are talking to lawyers, but there's also agreement that a permanent solution can come only from the Legislature.
"The department would like to see these issues resolved," schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto said. "There's a lot of operational issues that cloud the intent and purpose of charter schools."
The issue that currently cuts across all schools is funding -- or lack thereof.
"We are shorthanded, have no operating monies and (are) about to lose staff," said Laara Albrett, who heads Halau Lokahi. "Not what I bargained for ... when I heard about how wonderful and free from bureaucracy charter schools are."
Jason Lau, a teacher at Halau Lokahi, said budget problems are affecting everyone.
"It hurts to see those around me, dedicated to educating the children, suffer," Lau said. "It is sad because we don't see the state following through with their promises to do right by the children and give them what they deserve."
Kahakalau said her school's budget is half of what it was last year.
"It's a lot lower," she said. "It's illegal."
But State Auditor Marion Higa, who is mandated to set the allocation for charter schools, said the mechanism for setting the charter school allocations is set by law, which changed last year.
"Part of the problem was that (charter schools) were not aware of all the changes in the law," Higa said. She said one of the changes set a cap on the amount charter schools would receive.
"They started from a smaller base," Higa said. "We had to deduct some of the overhead, such as fringe benefits, in order to calculate per-pupil expenditures." Special education is another contentious issue.
Kahakalau said her school has not received money for her special-needs students so she cannot get special education teachers and other services.
But Deputy Attorney General Russell Suzuki said under federal law, the responsibility -- and therefore the funding -- for public school special education students in the state rests with the DOE.
"When we place the child at the charter school, the state needs to make sure that they have the capability. Otherwise, we should be offering the (free and appropriate education) ... at an appropriate public school," Suzuki said. "If we've offered the services at a public school, the money doesn't follow the child because the monies are earmarked for that school."
Charter schools are schools of choice, Suzuki argued, and the law does not say that every school be able to deliver services.
"You can deliver it at another site so long as you provide the transportation," Suzuki said.
Charter schools have received a little more than two-thirds of their funding for this year, at $2,000 for each child enrolled. They are due about another $900 per pupil.
The allocation to other public schools is based on the per-pupil cost of about $6,000, but BOE officials say that is deceiving because funding for some items are deducted from that figure and the money transferred to other departments that manage those costs.
The DOE, meanwhile, says impending budget cuts could affect all schools, including charter schools.
The department has unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature to mandate that the superintendent, not the state auditor, set the allocation figure. DOE officials plan to try again next session.
"The concern that we have with the auditor is that everything is black and white but in actual operation, it's gray," Hamamoto said.
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