View Point

By Mary Anne Raywid

Thursday, April 29, 1999

Legislative road to
educational stagnation

I have watched several versions of the "new century schools" bill -- now the "new century charter schools" bill -- pass through one legislative committee after another, becoming each round a weaker proposal.

Now, in its latest version, it has so distorted the concept of what a charter school is, and so obliterated the advantages of charter schools, that it would be a travesty to pass it. We cannot pass legislation that looks like this and at the same time bemoan our inability to improve education.

Hawaii doesn't need one more fatally flawed charter school law. We already have one -- "student-centered schools." And one is more than enough.

Here are the features of the latest version of the bill (SB 1501, as of April 9) that will lead to its assured classification as a "dead law" by the analysts of comparable laws across the nation.

At last count, 35 states have charter school laws -- and there are more than a thousand charter schools across the country. That's enough to have taught some vital lessons.

The most fundamental purpose of charter schools -- which, if denied, makes a bill a "don't even bother" proposition -- is to increase the number of school- launching or authorizing agencies within a state. In the words of the main charter school guru, it is to "remove the exclusive franchise" to authorize new schools from school boards. The original new century schools bill met this requirement by permitting the governor as well as the Board of Education to authorize new century schools.

It made some other serious mistakes, but at least it got the central purpose right. The first revision greatly reduced the governor's power to launch schools, and the latest version eliminates it altogether.

If there are objections to making the governor an authorizer, then how about county councils, or the University of Hawaii, or a special Charter School Commission? The point is, there must be at least one additional approval agency beyond the Board of Education. Otherwise, there can be no appeal for an applicant group, and absolutely no incentive for the board to authorize a set of schools beyond its control.

A second problem with the bill is that while it lifts the shackles of state regulations from the new charter schools, it does not touch those imposed by the collective bargaining agents. And the latter are half the education "establishment" in Hawaii. Unless a charter school has the right to select its own principal and teachers as it sees fit, then its purpose of assembling a like-minded, cohesive faculty is defeated before it even opens.

A third fundamental problem with the bill in its present form is that while freedom to shape itself is the point of the whole thing, it is certainly not the point of this bill.

It states what a charter school's governing body must consist of and how it is to be selected. It also states that job descriptions within each "new century charter school" must be determined by collective bargaining agreements -- thus capping the redefinition of roles and relationships that many find to be the core of real school improvement. In sum, most of the organizational advantages of charter schools have been closed off to Hawaii's even before the first one opens.

TOGETHER these three flaws all but assure that any charter schools established under this bill's conditions will suffer from the same plagues that our two student-centered schools have had to deal with -- which are not too different from the problems of the rest of Hawaii's public schools, except that they'd mistakenly been given to understand that things would be otherwise.

I would like to think that this bill will not be passed in its present form -- and that a brave conference committee may prove willing to make it the charter school bill it now claims to be.

In other words, make it honest: Either show the courage to pass a bill that is actually what it says it is, or stop trying to delude the public into thinking that you have done so.

Mary Anne Raywid is a member of the graduate affiliate
faculty of the College of Education, University of Hawaii-Manoa.
She is professor emerita at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.,
and a nationally known expert on education policy and reform.

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