The list of entities interested in becoming charter school authorizers in Hawaii is growing, as the state Board of Education prepares to weigh in on the increasingly contentious relationship between charter schools and the commission created in 2012 to oversee them.

“We want to ensure local input, control and support,” Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi wrote to the BOE last month, adding that he believes “a new authorizer for charter schools in the county of Hawaii is desperately needed.”

The letters from Kenoi and the chancellor of University of Hawaii West Oahu — which would also like to become a charter school authorizer — are part of a 60-page report going before the BOE on Tuesday.

Queen Liliuokalani Building. Board of Education offices. 16 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Board of Education is expected to discuss charter school oversight at its Tuesday meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The report summarizes the numerous complaints raised about the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission during a recent charter school “listening tour” conducted by the BOE.

Charter school leaders say the commission is overburdening schools with reporting requirements, not doing enough to support the schools, and failing to clearly communicate. Many also expressed frustration with the new school contracts, which they felt were too one-size-fits-all and should be negotiated more individually with schools.

As a result of the comments, BOE member Jim Williams, who oversaw the listening tour, is recommending that the board create an investigative committee to look at the commission’s performance, and begin the process of allowing for additional charter authorizers in the state. The Charter School Commission is currently the only agency that approves new charters and oversees the schools.

“The comments from attendees are of significant breadth and depth and suggest there may be a pattern of well-founded complaints about the Commission, thus warranting a more formal investigation by the Board,” Williams wrote.

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

The Charter School Commission was not asked to weigh in on any of the issues or complaints presented in the report, Commission Chair Catherine Payne said, adding that she had real concerns about the process thus far.

“The compilation serves as a preemptive attack that could discount any future response from the Commission,” Payne wrote in a letter submitted to the BOE for its Tuesday meeting. “I find it curious that someone who purports to be interested in seeking facts would simply take down all the comments and share them publically in this way, as if they were true. If I were still teaching logical fallacies I would use this as an example of  ‘Poisoning the Well.’”

Lawmakers created the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission in 2012 with Act 130, which put in place some significant changes for the charter school system in Hawaii — including a provision for schools to enter into performance contracts with the commission.

Long-simmering tensions between school leaders and the Charter School Commission have heated up in recent months, as the commission worked on creating rules for upcoming charter school contract renewals.

It’s not unusual for there to be tensions between charter schools and the authorizers who overseeing their performance, said Nelson Smith, senior advisor at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

But those tensions can be exacerbated when the authorizer is tasked with implementing a new law that includes additional reporting and accountability requirements, said Smith, who is familiar with Hawaii’s charter school law through his work mentoring Commission Executive Director Tom Hutton in the last year.

According to the report, attendees at the listening tour meetings feel that charter schools are “always on the defense” with the commission, reacting to an “antagonistic, a ‘gotcha’ atmosphere, morale deflating for school leaders and teachers, an ‘us and them’ situation, a ‘let’s go get the schools’ attitude.”

“Charter School leaders collectively feel that they are under inordinate, intensive scrutiny in a hostile regulatory and compliance environment that hampers their ability to focus on student learning, oversteps the authority and autonomy of its Governing Boards, and threatens the very existence of their schools,” Kaiulani Pahio, coordinator for the Na Lei Naauao Native Hawaiian Charter School Alliance, wrote to the BOE in September.

Although the Charter School Commission is coming under fire from schools for being overly intrusive, it was recently slammed by the state auditor’s office for not being aggressive enough in its financial monitoring of charter schools, including the now-shuttered Halau Lokahi.

Hutton, who has repeatedly characterized the tensions between his staff and certain charter schools as indicative of the growing pains the system has experienced since the 2012 law was passed, said he is looking forward to being able to provide input to the BOE on the situation.

“There’s certainly a lot more to the story,” Hutton said. 

Representatives from more than two-thirds of charter schools in the state attended the listening tour events. There was no information about which specific schools participated, however.

The BOE will take up the report at its meeting Tuesday. The commission is also expected to discuss the report at its next meeting on Feb. 11.

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