Just how fair is the state’s charter school funding system?

State lawmakers tried to get a better understanding of the longstanding issue Thursday during one of two lengthy briefings on supplemental budget requests from the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission and the state Department of Education.

The Charter School Commission is requesting $29.3 million in capital improvement funds for charter schools located on state-owned property, and $972,300 to support commission expenses and pay bonuses to teachers in hard-to-staff areas.

The DOE is is asking for an additional $45.7 million for its operating budget and $112.8 million in capital improvement funds.

Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda, left, and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke at a hearing earlier this week.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda, left, and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke at a hearing earlier this week. The two presided over a lengthy budget briefing Thursday on education funding. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Although DOE schools and charter schools are funded differently, increases to the DOE’s operating budget do result in an increase in funding for charter schools, said Tom Hutton, the commission’s executive director.

That’s because charters — public schools that operate with a greater degree of autonomy than schools run by the DOE — are primarily funded on a per-pupil basis, using a calculation based on the state DOE’s annual appropriation. That per-pupil rate has risen from about $6,009 two years ago to $6,846 in the current school year.

The DOE says it spends about $11,803 a year educating students in its schools, but that figure includes numerous expenses and is much more than each school actually receives on an annual basis.

So just how big is the gap in funding between DOE-operated public schools and charter schools, Rep. Gene Ward asked Hutton.

“I’m not sure we are comparing apples to apples,” Hutton said.

Tom Hutton heads the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission.
Tom Hutton heads the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission. 

Making a clear comparison between charter school funding and traditional public school funding is difficult, Hutton said. That’s in part because of all the support public schools receive from the state DOE office, which also picks up the utility bill for its schools. But the $6,846-per-pupil figure is not the only funding charter schools receive, Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda pointed out.

“It would be good if you could do some kind of apples to apples (statistics) so we can compare,” Ward said. 

The biggest equity issue, Hutton told legislators Thursday, is that charter schools don’t get funding for facilities — an often significant expense that can contribute to real financial struggles at the schools.

The commission’s capital improvement requests, which were left out of the governor’s budget, include $17 million to replace a building that burned down at University Laboratory School and $5 million for commercial kitchens in charter schools across the state.

There are numerous other facility needs for charter schools, but Hutton said he was advised that capital improvement funds could only be spent on state-owned property. Many charters lease space from private owners.

“Realistically I don’t think you are going to solve this equity issue overnight,” Hutton said, adding that it was time to “start the process.”

DOE Requests

Hawaii schools have seen a 38 percent increase in the number of economically disadvantaged students since 2008, a figure that Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi pointed out when making her case for additional funding to legislators.

“We have more students with high needs and those students need more resources and more support,” Matayoshi said. “At the same time our resources have basically been stable.”

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke sharply criticized the DOE, though, for what she said were misleading statistics in the DOE presentation that made it appear as though the state had seen a 36 percent increase in revenue while the DOE had only seen a 9 percent increase in funding. The statistics did not include the expenses that the state picks up for pensions and debt services, Luke said.

“You are misleading the public. You are misleading the Legislature,” Luke told Matayoshi.  

The DOE is asking for an additional $45.7 million to increase funding for English language learners, help pay for school nurse contracts for students with disabilities and provide assistance with utility and transportation expenses. The increase would also provide a 2 percent across-the-board increase to the Weighted Student Funding formula.

The DOE is also requesting an additional $112.8 million in capital improvement funds. Of that, $30 million would be allotted for air conditioning and other heat abatement measures. Another $35 million would go to the construction of a new building at Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, which has been grappling with severe overcrowding issues.
Sunflowers planted at Hookele Elementary School on tour of the new campus. 21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hookele Elementary School opened last fall in Kapolei. Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The estimated construction cost for the Campbell building was something several lawmakers took issue with, pointing out that the DOE recently constructed Hookele Elementary School in Kapolei for roughly $40 million.
That a single building could cost nearly as much as an entire school is “a hard thing for us to swallow,” Rep. Richard Onishi said. 

The new Campbell building is large, includes specialized classrooms that are more expensive to construct, and involves moving portable classrooms and addressing existing infrastructure challenges, according to Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent in the DOE’s Office of School Facilities and Support Service

Luke suggested that perhaps the DOE should consider other ways to improve the bidding process to reduce construction costs, such as hiring a design firm for a year or putting the project out to bid before asking the Legislature for an appropriation.

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