A 90-plus-page bill to boost the accountability of Hawaii charter schools is racing toward passage in the Legislature.

After clearing the Senate earlier this month, the legislation sailed through two House committees last week and is headed to a Finance hearing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. From there, it would only be a couple more votes and a signature shy of becoming law.

“We’re getting very close to the finish line,” Senate Education Committee Chair Jill Tokuda told Civil Beat Wednesday. “At times, I’m surprised it’s been going so well. But I really believe it’s a reflection of all the time the task force put into it before session started. This has been a very in-depth, engaged process.”

The bill would establish a new way of governing charter schools, which have been beset by controversies in recent years in part due to the lack of clear lines of authority. Its passage would be historic for the Aloha State.

A policy analyst from the National Governors Association, one of several stakeholder groups involved in crafting the bill, shared her thoughts on the legislation’s pluses and pukas during the Board of Education meeting March 20.

“Hawaii’s charter school system, where it is now, stands at a tipping point,” Stephanie Shipton told the board. “We’re at a fortunate time where you can learn from everyone else’s mistakes.”

Ambiguous expectations. An overall absence of clarity. Some charter schools don’t realize they’re public schools. These were some of her criticisms regarding the current state of affairs with Hawaii charter schools.

“It is a broken system and this bill goes a long way toward fixing it,” Shipton said.

BOE Chair Don Horner said the board “fully supports” the bill, but he had a couple concerns. In particular, he had some questions about the role of the state regarding common core standards, multiple authorizers coming online at the same time, the shift away from charter schools’ original mission, and the amount of work to implement the law.

“We get what we invest,” he said. “We want to get this right.”

In answering Horner’s questions, Shipton said it is “absolutely” the role of the state to set common core standards and Hawaii charter schools should be required to align with those.

Now that the newness of charter schools has worn off, she said nationally there has been a move toward a “portfolio school district” positively changing the rest of a district.

This was in response to Horner saying the “noble goal” of charter schools serving as models — bringing their successes “back to the mothership” — has not been executed well statewide.

Shipton was unable to alleviate the chair’s concern over the bill’s absence of explicit language requiring charter schools to be non-profit.

The task force that produced the Hawaii bill based it on a model law written by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. While the model law contains explicit language banning for-profit businesses, the state’s version does not.

“That is one area you could tighten up,” Shipton said when pressed by the chair.

“I don’t want a for-profit taking public money,” Horner said. He said his “cynical banker self” was concerned about the board having the appropriate grounds to reject such an application.

The board would have the power to decide the fate of certain charter schools in dispute. Currently, the Charter School Review Panel acts as the state authorizer, responsible for approving, denying and revoking a charter between the state and local school board. The bill would change the panel’s name to Public Charter School Commission and modify its duties.

“The time to build the box is before we get the applications,” Horner said, noting that Hawaii got to the sticky point it’s in now by passing a law without having the necessary administrative rules ready to go.

There were 11 amendments passed by the Education and Labor & Public Employment committees this month, but the latest version of the legislation, Senate Bill 2115 SD2 HD1, did not include language banning for-profit organizations from running charter schools. Nor did the companion legislation, SB 2116, which is intended to provide the rules for a clear and certain implementation of the law.

Tokuda, who introduced both bills in January, said the for-profit issue came up earlier this year. There was discussion over whether to ban for-profits stemming from controversies over them on the mainland.

Ultimately, she said, the decision was made to not specifically ban for-profits. This was based on the belief that there are great nonprofits and bad ones, and similarly there are amazing for-profits and wretched ones.

The answer lies in having clear expectations defined in the contracts, Tokuda said, adding that this bill has “really clear lines of accountability.”

Regarding Horner’s concern over the law having multiple authorizers coming online at the same time, and questions over the ability to manage this new workload, Tokuda said she intends to have an amendment introduced Thursday that should assuage that worry.

“I will be asking the Finance Committee to consider an amendment to basically put off multiple authorizing until at least 2014,” she said. “This would give our state some time to grow into our new system.”

Whatever the law’s final shape, Horner said education officials need to be ready to implement it when the time comes.

“We have a substantial amount of work to do if this model law passes,” he said.

Tokuda agreed. After noting the “thousands of hours” and some 20 meetings the task force spent working on the bill before the legislative session started, she said the real work is “where the rubber meets the road.”

“We have to make sure we allocate the time and resources to make sure we do it right … or all our work will be completely for naught,” she said.

One of the hardest things to do, Tokuda said, will be overhauling the culture surrounding the system.

“You can’t legislate that,” she said. “We have to facilitate that happening. That’s the part that I cringe. I just hope that we’ll be able to do it right.”

The board and others throughout the Department of Education will have to restore the public’s faith in the charter school system. A perfect storm of charter school controversies has blown through Hawaii in the last year.

Horner said it will be important to keep in mind that charter schools only serve 5 percent of the population.

“We need to be careful how we organize so it doesn’t take up an inordinate amount of time to manage the authorizers,” the chair said.

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