Tread carefully in
overseeing charters


Lawmakers have rejected Governor Lingle's plans for changes and expansion.

THOUGH legislators have set aside Governor Lingle's proposal to expand and modify charter schools, they appear willing to incorporate some of her plans in their own.

Judging from a recent audit of one school, revisions of the charter school law are needed, and until those are in place, increasing the number of schools should be postponed.

The state auditor's review focused only on the operations of Na Wai Ola Waters of Life school, but exposed weaknesses in the law that allow confusion about oversight and accountability as well as lines of authority.

Although publicly funded, charter schools generally are free to set their own curriculum and are directed by their own boards. Twenty-three of the schools were established independently while four are conversion charters, schools that were once regular public schools, but have transferred operations to their own boards.

Charters have great flexibility internally, but must meet state educational standards and must file financial and self-evaluation reports. Those responsible for assessing charter operations include the state Board of Education and the director of the charter school administrative office, who functions as a superintendent and advocate. An office in the Department of Education also lends support, allocates funds and resolves operational issues between schools, the department and the state education board.

The audit points to this set up as contributing to uncertainty about responsibilities and to the financial and administrative problems Na Wai Ola experienced, a situation that may be duplicated at other schools.

As the audit recommends, the Legislature should re-evaluate the law and make revisions to improve and clarify responsibilities and authority for charter schools. In doing so, however, lawmakers should be cautious not to intrude unnecessarily on the independent nature of the schools.

The charters, which offer students alternatives to traditional educational systems, require freedom to innovate, but they should not be left to founder.


Alm should explain
rejecting ‘no contest’


The state Supreme Court has criticized a state judge for rejecting no-contest pleas.

STATE Circuit Judge Steven Alm is not alone in his disdain of no-contest pleas. While many such pleas are entered to avoid admissions that may have legal consequences in other places, such as civil court, Alm is right in saying that they allow a wrongdoer to deny responsibility.

However, the state Supreme Court has scolded Alm for abusing his judicial discretion and rejecting all no-contest pleas as a matter of policy. We hope Alm will respond by tailoring rejection to the individual case at hand. In other words, he should be more discreet in explaining rejection of no-contest pleas in each and every case.

Honolulu attorney Edward Chun had entered into a plea agreement with the city prosecutor, agreeing to plead no-contest to a charge of illegally contributing to Mayor Jeremy Harris' 2000 re-election campaign, but it required the judge's approval. Alm told him no.

"A no-contest plea allows someone to enter a plea without taking responsibility for his or her actions, and the court did not see that as being appropriate," Alm said. "Pleading guilty requires people to take responsibility for their actions, and that is in the public's interest in the effective administration of justice."

The law allows judges wide discretion in sentencing, and Alm obviously interpreted that to mean he could apply standards within certain parameters, even to the point of consistently being at the same extreme allowed.

The state's high court made plain 30 years ago that "discretionary action must be exercised on a case-by-case basis, not by any inflexible blanket policy of denial." Or, as the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated a few years later, "The existence of discretion requires its exercise."

The Supreme Court threw out Chun's conviction -- he had begrudgingly pleaded guilty -- on the grounds of a flawed grand jury indictment of him, and included its scolding of Alm as an unusual afterthought. The prosecutor can refile the case and is expected to do so.

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