Charter schools likely to reject funding formula
Hawaii's 27 public charter schools are preparing for a first-ever vote on whether to participate in the state's controversial new weighted school funding formula.
And a "no" vote looks likely because of uncertainties over the evolving formula.
Some charter schools have high percentages of the types of students that draw in more funding under the "weighted student formula," which gives schools more money for certain students, such as those from low-income backgrounds, nonnative English speakers and those that transfer into schools mid-year.
But charter school officials say there are too many questions over whether the formula would help or hurt their budgets to adopt it now, especially since state law allows charters to rethink their decision every two years.
"We're not going to jump into that. There are too many problems and ambiguities to be worked out right now," said Keola Nakanishi, principal of Halau Ku Mana charter school.
Each charter school's governing board must decide its position by Sept. 1. More than two-thirds of the 27 schools -- or at least 19 -- must vote "yes" for the formula to apply to all schools.
The formula, aimed at creating more equitable school funding, has been in flux ever since early versions called for harsh budget cuts for some schools.
Though it goes into effect in the coming school year, the Legislature and Board of Education have taken steps to mute its impact for the first few years. Meanwhile, the committee that annually adjusts the formula is considering changes that would further soften future versions.
Hawaii charter schools, which are free to devise their own curricula and instructional methods and enjoy other freedoms from the Department of Education, have consistently been given less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools.
However, they got a slight bump in this year's legislative session, from a previous $5,600 per pupil to just under $7,000.
"We're going to go with what's clear and secure and known, at least in this first year," Nakanishi said.
The Legislature also gave an additional $660 per pupil in facilities assistance to "start-up" charter schools, many of which have been plagued by a lack of permanent facilities, unlike pre-existing schools that have converted to charter status.
Steve Hirakami, principal of the 200-student Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, said the K-12 charter school's funding "is now probably the best it's ever been," and he worries about the weighted student formula's negative impact on small schools, which describes most charters.
"I really don't think we would benefit. No small schools would," he said.
One of the major uncertainties is how weighted student formula funding would be disbursed to schools, he said.
Currently, charter school funds come straight from the state general fund, bypassing the DOE.
Allowing the DOE to apply its formula on charter school funds could prove unpalatable to charter schools, which only recently earned their funding independence, he said.
"That would be a step backward," he said.
Jim Shon, executive director of the state Charter Schools Administrative Office, said there has been some discussion among charters about devising their own weighted student formula that could be applied to the money they now receive from the general fund.
However, the varying degrees of financial and operational stability among charter schools could make it hard for them to agree on the shape of a formula, he said.
"My sense is it (voting 'yes') doesn't look like a good idea at this point," Shon said.
But he adds: "It's not a fait accompli. It's up to each local school board and they could have a different view."
State law requires the vote be held the year before each two-year state budget is decided.