Hawaii’s recommendations to revamp the state charter school system would go a long way toward correcting accountability problems, four national experts told legislators at a briefing Wednesday.

But there’s still room for improvement, they say, including finding a way to make sure charter schools get the same funding as regular public schools.

A state task force on charter school governance in December made 16 recommendations that would tighten regulations and provide a new way to oversee the schools that, while public, operate independently under charters with the state.

“All of these things, we think, are tremendous steps forward,” said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

“The idea behind charter schools is that autonomy and accountability will produce better results,” he said.

But while Hawaii’s 15-year-old charter school system is strong in terms of autonomy, Richmond said — with the exception that charter employees are required by law to be employees of the state — it has lacked accountability.

“In practice, there’s been virtually zero accountability,” he said. “The autonomy piece was there without accountability. Which means the schools were operating without any oversight.”

This meant charter schools were starting up without any idea of what their objectives were, Richmond explained, or the standards by which their success would be measured.

The task force recommends ditching the old law, which has evolved over time into what Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda called “a Frankenstein,” in favor of a comprehensive replacement.

The proposals would clarify expectations and responsibilities for every level of the charter school system, from the Hawaii State Board of Education and the state authorizing agency, down to the schools and their governing boards.

The recommendations, some of which will be part of a charter school omnibus bill this coming legislative session, include:

  • Eliminating the Charter School Administrative Office.
  • Strengthening the role of the Charter School Review Panel, which is currently tasked with authorizing charter schools and holding them accountable; adding staff to support its responsibilities; and changing its name to the Public Charter School Commission.
  • Allowing more than one agency to authorize charter schools.
  • Introducing performance contracts for schools with their authorizers.
  • Placing more administrative responsibilities, like payroll, data reporting and technical support, at the school level.
  • Getting uniform reporting systems so charter school data can be compared with data from regular public schools.
  • Changing charter schools’ “local school boards” to “governing boards.”
  • Representation of certain skill sets on the governing boards, such as at least one member with accounting skills, one with business skills, etc.

Stephanie Shipton, an education policy analyst for the National Governor’s Association, said she is certain that thoughtful and faithful implementation of the proposed reforms would strengthen and expand the charter school system.

Room For Improvement

While Hawaii’s plans are bold and will significantly improve the state’s rank against the Model Charter School Law, said Lisa Grover, director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, some big issues will still need to be addressed.1

She expressed concern that, among other things, the proposals do not assure equal funding and access to facilities for both public charter schools and traditional public schools.

“Hawaii is not unique in this,” Grover said. “No state currently offers equitable access to funding for charter school students. Even though we’re 20 years into the charter school movement, this — along with raising student achievement for the kids — remains one of the biggest obstacles.”

Hawaii is unique, though, in that it requires public charter school employees to be state employees, and therefore subject to the same collective bargaining agreements other employees work under.

“That’s a highly unusual arrangement, that charter school employees must be state employees, and it actually undercuts the charter school concept of increased autonomy,” he said, observing that the resulting personnel issues overburdened the Charter Schools Administrative Office.

“You’re taking away autonomy, and creating administrative headaches,” he said. “That’s a big issue, but I would suggest you take a look at it.”

John Nathan, director of the Center for School Change in Saint Paul, Minn., advised lawmakers to congratulate themselves for the work that has been done, but then to think about the next steps “not just to improve charters, but public education as a whole,” he said.

Tokuda said she by no means believes these initial proposals will be the end of charter school reform in Hawaii, and she remains open to changes and modifications during the legislative process.

“We want to do this as quickly as we can, but want to do it right,” she said.

House Education Vice Chairwoman Della Au Belatti expressed concern that it will be difficult to get buy-in from some in the charter school system for the sweeping changes, and sought the experts’ advice in how to move forward.

“The reality is, it’s in their interests to have their expectations for them defined,” said Richmond. “In my opinion, it’s not in their interests to be working hard day after day, year after year, and never know what’s required or expected of them.

“A lot of the current frustration we hear from folks in the schools is that nobody can tell them what the rules are. There’s this constant uncertainty. You are proposing bringing some definition to that. Which will be emotional over that transition, but once they get there, they should feel better.”

Read the task force’s 21-page official report and recommendations here.

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