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Vanelle Maunalei Love


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POSTED: Friday, October 02, 2009

As parents' dismay intensifies over instructional cutbacks at Hawaii's regular public schools, interest is rising in charter schools, those more independent institutions able to adapt to the needs of individual communities.

Unlike regular schools in the statewide public system, each of Hawaii's 31 charter schools answers to its own local school board and negotiates supplemental agreements with the education unions. While regular public schools are furloughing teachers 17 Fridays this school year and next, not all charters are cutting class time, even as they struggle against deep state cuts to already austere budgets.

Flexibility and innovation are hallmarks of charter schools, which give students more choices while adhering to the same educational laws and standards as other public schools, said Vanelle Maunalei Love, executive director of Hawaii's Charter School Administrative Office.

Love was in on the ground floor of the charter school movement in Hawaii, co-founding a statewide advocacy group and serving as the administrator of the Hakipu'u Learning Center in Kaneohe from 2001-2004.

The Kamehameha Schools alumna, who trained as a chiropractor early in her career, is committed to sustaining schools of choice that complement and enhance the regular system.

QUESTION: The fact that charter schools are not necessarily furloughing teachers, despite facing their own budget cuts, has generated a lot of interest. How are charter schools coping with the economic crisis?

ANSWER: They received a large cut this past legislative session to their per-pupil allocation, and most of the schools looked at how those cuts were going to impact at the school level. So some did, early on, cut back their school budgets and had to lay off staff. ... They were cutting costs early, as of the end of last year. Some of our schools are going to be furloughing to help balance the budget, but others are using carryover money, from being so frugal, to help them get through this year without furloughs.

Q: So in terms of the impact on students, that advance budget planning paid off?

A: Absolutely. What our schools wanted to ensure was that the negative impact on student learning would be as minimal as possible, and because they're schools of choice and autonomous, they are able to look at how they are going to be able to use the funds most efficiently at the school level.

Q: So each charter school negotiates with the unions on their own, or do they negotiate as a group?

A: Each local school board negotiates a supplemental agreement.

Q: Are more parents trying to enroll their kids in charter schools now?

A: We have a large wait list. The last count was over 3,000, and ... that is probably due to a number of reasons, one being the economy, and perhaps we're having some who were in private schools looking for a public school option, and also because parents at public schools are seeing that charter schools are offering a choice at the community level so that they have a say in the education of their children. It's probably too early to say whether some children are coming because of the furloughs, but I would say that is probably a factor, too.

Q: A lot of charter school advocates say the state is not funding charters equitably. Can you explain what's going on with the per-pupil funding, and the facilities funding?

A: It's a long story. It starts about 15 years ago. But in a nutshell, the charter statute has never really been followed when it comes to per-pupil funding. In (fiscal year) 2008 ... the per-pupil amount for charters was $8,150. For (fiscal year) 2009 it dropped to $7,588. For (fiscal year) 2010 it dropped way down to $5,536. And our enrollment continues to rise every year, and, as I said, we have a wait list. So if the money was truly following the child, our funding should be going up.

The facilities part is separate. Every year we have gone in and asked for funding, and every year we don't get it. ... Finally, this past session we were successful in getting (clarified) facilities-support language in the law ...

...Q: Who decides whether a charter school gets to start up?

A: The Charter School Review Panel is now the authorizer for the state.

Q: Are members of the panel elected or ap

pointed?

A: They're appointed by the Board of Education.

Q: And then who keeps track of whether the school is operating properly?

A: The local school board is the entity at the school level to make sure that they are being fiscally and academically accountable. ... The local boards must answer to the Charter School Review Panel. ... Our schools all turn in annual reports, and in those annual reports they have to list academic and fiscal information.

Ultimately, our schools are most accountable to the parents, because at schools of choice, if the families are not satisfied, they will leave.

Q: Are the local school boards elected?

A: Yes, they are elected by people within the school community.

Q: How can parents find out about particular charter schools?

A: We have a list on our Web site (http://www.hcsao.org).

Q: Are all students welcome at charter schools, or are there specific admission requirements?

A: Because we are public schools, we have to keep our enrollment open for all students. If there are more that apply, as is the case at most of our schools, then they have to go through their process ... and most of them either use a lottery or have an orientation so the families can see if that school is really the best fit for the child.

Q: Do charter schools have to meet the same academic standards as regular public schools, such as those set by No Child Left Behind?

A: Yes. As public schools we are subject to the same federal mandates. We also take the Hawaii State Test.

Q: What are the attractions of charter schools?

A: I would say that the charters give families the opportunity to choose the school that is most suitable for their children's educational well-being, and also that the teachers choose to create and work at the schools where they have a direct impact on the working and learning environment for both the students and themselves. These are community-based. Each of our schools has a particular focus, and we have 31 very different, individual schools.

Q: And the pitfalls?

A: I would say the greatest challenge is funding. If we could figure out not only an equitable amount, but an adequate amount — and I would say that goes for schools across the board, not just for charters. ... It is an issue nationwide and especially in our state. Our biggest challenge is funding for sustainability and including facilities and maintenance as part of that funding. ... To take that $5,500 (per pupil) and have to use that money for every single thing is not an adequate or equitable amount. I'm worried that some of our schools will not be able to sustain themselves at this level of funding, which would be very sad because these schools are offering educational quality, choice and community involvement.

               

     

 

A QUICK LOOK AT CHARTER SCHOOLS IN HAWAII:

        » A total of 8,424 students are enrolled in 31 charter schools statewide; most are in rural communities. The Big Island has the most charter schools, with 13.
       

» Total enrollment has grown by 76 percent since 2003; the average enrollment per school is 245 students. More than 3,000 prospective students are on waiting lists.

       

» Seventeen schools are based in the Hawaiian culture, two are virtual-hybrid schools and one has a science and technology focus.

       

» Most new students (44 percent last school year) come from regular public schools, but many enter at kindergarten (28 percent) and some transfer from private schools (7 percent).

       

» The percentage of special-education students varies by school, ranging from 1 percent to 25 percent. Nearly half of all charter school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

       

» Seventeen of the 31 charter schools are on “;in good standing”; under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

       

Source: Hawaii Charter School Administrative Office