A rift between charter school leaders and the state agency that oversees them is illuminating longstanding misunderstandings — perhaps even fundamental disagreements — about the direction of the charter school movement in Hawaii.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion in the state about what an authorizer is,” Mitch D’Olier, a member of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission, said at a Thursday commission meeting.

The 3-year-old commission’s work has been consistent with the role of charter school authorizers across the United States, whose primary task is holding charter schools academically and financially accountable, D’Olier said.

“Maybe we don’t want an authorizer in Hawaii and that’s a whole (different) question,” D’Olier said.

Halau Lokahi assets before a recent post-closure sale.
Halau Lokahi Charter School assets before a post-closure sale. The school’s closure rankled charter school supporters. Hawaii Public Charter Schools Commission

The meeting came just one day after the commission’s executive director, Tom Hutton, informed charter schools of his intention to resign.

Hutton has been “under siege” for some time, Commission Chair Catherine Payne said, bearing the brunt of frustration from school leaders who say they are being “regulated to the max.”

Commissioners praised the work of Hutton and his staff Thursday, while also expressing regret at not having been able to protect them from what Payne described as abusive treatment.

Charter school employees curse at Hutton and commission staff on the phone, she said. During a meeting leading up to the closure of Halau Lokahi Charter School, Payne said an employee of the now-shuttered school threw salt on Hutton as a “sign of disgust.”

“I’m really sad about that, and I’m angry too,” Payne said.

Commissioners said they were frustrated and confused by the state Board of Education’s recent charter school listening tour and subsequent decision to investigate whether a special review of the commission’s performance is warranted.

BOE members conducted three listening tour events with charter schools in November and December before publishing a lengthy report on the numerous complaints they heard about the commission and its staff.

According to the report, attendees at the listening tour meetings said 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.”

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

Neither commissioners nor their staff members were invited to participate in the events or provide responses to the complaints before the report was made public, and the BOE did not fact-check any of the allegations, commissioners said.

Commissioners are now being asked to weigh in through individual and private meetings with a specially formed BOE committee. Several commissioners said they have yet to respond to meeting requests from the BOE because the process and implications of the investigation have not been clearly explained.

“I still don’t understand what they want from us,” Commissioner Ernest Nishizaki said.

Although Payne said she has been informed by Board of Education staff that the committee is just holding informal conversations, she views the process as an investigation and therefore holding individual meetings might be a tactic for trying to find discrepancies in what commissioners say.  

“I never felt like I was in a war until now,” Payne said after noting that as a principal she always discouraged people from using war metaphors when talking about education. “I feel like we are under assault”

Big Conversations Needed

Lawmakers created the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission in 2012 during a broad overhaul of charter school regulations. The purpose of the changes was to require more transparency and accountability for schools, state Rep. Roy Takumi said.

Prior to the 2012 law, charter schools were overseen by an administrative office within the Department of Education that had dual — and some say conflicting — roles of charter school advocacy and oversight.

Hutton has consistently pointed to this change as a big source of the ongoing conflict between the Charter School Commission and school leaders. The charter school system, he said, has been experiencing “growing pains” for the last few years.

But numerous charter school leaders say the problem is not the legislative changes, but the way they are being implemented.

For example, the legislation says that schools have to enter into “bilateral” performance contracts with the commission. Many charter school leaders say “bilateral” implies a more equal negotiation between two parties instead of what they see as contract terms being dictated to them.

Lawmakers created the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission in 2012 to oversee broad changes to school oversight.
Lawmakers created the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission in 2012 to oversee broad changes to school oversight. Screenshot / Hawaii Public Charter School Commission website

“There are ways of making changes that are not punitive,” Connections Public Charter School Principal John Thatcher told Civil Beat on Wednesday. “You don’t always have to carry the hammer. It can be done in a totally different way.”Beyond complaints about how commission staff interact with the charters, a bigger fear among school leaders is that Hawaii is moving toward a one-size-fits-all system for charter schools that leaves them with too little autonomy.

This has created a battle that seems to pit what people view as the “Hawaii way of doing things” against the “mainland” way of doing things. A common complaint is that Hawaii’s unique charter schools won’t fit into the same approach as charter schools in the rest of the country.

Commissioners, meanwhile, say they are carrying out the mandate given to them by lawmakers to bring about swift and dramatic change.

“I am absolutely convinced that what we have done to this point is exactly what we are supposed to do,” D’Olier said.  

Hutton — a lawyer who helped found a successful charter school in Washington, D.C. — said he overestimated the level of “common understanding” about the work of charter school authorizers and the new direction for charter schools in the state.

Hutton said he hopes that his departure will prompt some larger conversations about the direction that Hawaii’s charter school movement is heading in.

A big part of that needs to be a community dialogue about what authorizers are supposed to do, commissioners said.

But as the BOE looks at the commission’s performance — and at the same time weighs the possibility of allowing for additional charter school authorizers in the state — conversations about the role of charter schools within the broader public education system are needed too, D’Olier said.

“It may be that what we have in law now and what we have in policy, is not what our (Board of Education) and the community want,” Payne said.

BOE Chair Lance Mizumoto— who was appointed to the board in July — told commission members Thursday that he didn’t have a clear vision for charter schools in the state yet, but that he would like to see them provided with more support.

“There needs to be a balance between empowerment and accountability, and I’m not sure that exists right now,” Mizumoto said.

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