Getting approval to open a new charter school in Hawaii is no easy feat.

Just ask Sheila Buyukacar, the lead applicant for The IMAG Academy — one of seven proposed new schools with applications before the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission this year.  

Buyukacar has been working for more than a decade on the concept for IMAG, a school that she says would stand out in the Waipahu area for its small size and focus on project-based learning with an emphasis on community service.

Lance Mizumoto, Chair, Board of Education. 21 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Board of Education Chair Lance Mizumoto, right, told the Charter Commission last month that he wants to see charter schools given more support. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Charter Commission already turned down IMAG’s charter application in 2014 and again in 2015, stating its academic and financial plan was “unrealistic and unreasonable.” After each denial, Buyukacar went back to the drawing board and made modifications that she hoped would make a difference.

Opening IMAG would likely have been much easier during the early days of Hawaii’s charter school movement, before lawmakers overhauled state law to strengthen oversight of existing schools and weed out all but the most rigorous and financially sound proposals for new programs.

Proposed New Charter Schools

The result is a much higher bar for applicants. Four of the seven proposed schools vying for approval from the state this year have applied at least once before. Two schools are applying for a third time.

IMAG’s application this year will be judged by a state agency in the midst of upheaval — in part because of an intense backlash from charter school leaders who say the commission has created a hostile regulatory environment that threatens the autonomy of their schools.

Tom Hutton, the commission’s executive director, announced his resignation last month. Meanwhile, the Board of Education is trying to decide if a special review of the commission’s performance is warranted.

Hutton never played a hands-on role in the review of new school applications, commission chair Catherine Payne said, so his departure is unlikely to have any impact on this year’s new charter hopefuls.

But bigger changes could be on the horizon for how new schools are created and how all of them are overseen.

The Board of Education is close to finalizing an application system that would allow other entities in the state to apply to become charter school authorizers.

And the Board of Education could replace as many as four of the nine current Charter School Commission members in the next three months, using a new process approved last week.

The current turmoil is a “moment of truth” for the state’s charter school movement, Hutton said. “There is quite a bit of backlash against things the Legislature put in place, and that is something to watch very carefully.”

The current turmoil could be a cathartic moment that leads to positive discussions about some of the strains on charter schools and their role in the larger education system, Hutton said.

But, Hutton warns, it could also be the start of efforts to “roll back hard-won progress.”

A Lightning Rod

Lawmakers created the Charter School Commission in 2012 as part of a broad overhaul of charter school regulations in the state.

Long-simmering tensions between school leaders and the commission heated up last year as it worked on creating rules for upcoming charter school contract renewals.

Tom Hutton helped found a well-respected Washington D.C. charter school and served as a lawyer for the National School Boards Association before his appointment as executive director of the charter commission.
Tom Hutton helped found a Washington, D.C., charter school and served as a lawyer for the National School Boards Association before his appointment as executive director of Hawaii’s charter commission. Now he’s stepping down. 

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.

But while some charter school leaders say there is too much of an emphasis in the new contracts on standardized tests, Hutton says the criteria falls short of what might be expected in other states.

Charter Commission staff abandoned efforts earlier this year to apply for a federal grant program for charter schools, because the commission didn’t have stiff enough renewal requirements — specifically that charter schools post test score gains for all student groups.

“Realistically if we had the kind of accountability system that the federal grant program contemplated for Hawaii, the odds of many of our schools making it under such an accountability system would be pretty low right now,” Hutton said. 

As complaints about the commission increased, the Board of Education held three listening tour events with charter schools in November and December.

According to a BOE 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.”

The Charter Commission did not have a chance to respond to the complaints before the BOE published its report, something the BOE is now doing through individual interviews with commissioners and staff.

But the frustrations expressed in the report are resulting in some swift actions on the part of the Board of Education.

Changes Ahead

The board could replace nearly half of the nine-member commission in the coming months. Two positions are vacant after commissioners resigned, another two commissioners have terms ending in June. 

Most of the current members were selected by former BOE Chair Don Horner, who submitted their names for approval by the full Board of Education. But the process for appointing commissioners will be very different moving forward.

Last Tuesday, the BOE approved a new plan for selecting commissioners suggested by current BOE Chair Lance Mizumoto, who took over from Horner this summer.

Lawmakers created the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission in 2012 to oversee broad changes to school oversight.
The website home page of the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission, created by the Legislature in 2012 to oversee broad changes to school oversight. Screenshot / Hawaii Public Charter School Commission website

Moving forward, the BOE will put out an open call for nominations and applications. Anyone can apply to become a commissioner, or nominate someone else. 

In order to solicit more applications, Mizumoto wrote the new policy to ensure the privacy of nominees until someone becomes a finalist and agrees for their name to become public.

In order to discuss nominations at public meetings, the BOE will assign numbers to nominees to be used in the place of specific names.

It’s a process that Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, says is legal, but unusual in the efforts the board is making to keep the names private.

“They are not required to keep that information private, and they certainly could have spoken to the applicants beforehand and gotten permission to use their names rather than having a process that says the information has to be private,” Black said. 

At the same time, the BOE is also working to finalize its rules allowing more than one charter school authorizer, something charter school leaders have been advocating for strongly in recent months.

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi and the chancellor of University of Hawaii West Oahu have both written letters to the BOE expressing interest in having their organizations become charter school authorizers.

The BOE extended its deadline for submitting comments on the rules until Wednesday, and is expected to put the rules to a vote at its March 15 board meeting.

So far the BOE has been careful about writing the rules in a way that would discourage what is known in other states as “authorizer shopping,” by applicants, Hutton said.

Although Hutton said additional authorizers could be beneficial, there are still reasons to be concerned about how such a process is implemented.

“The huge push for (multiple authorizers) just coincidentally happening after the commission adopted contract renewal criteria, is something people should think about a little bit,” Hutton said, adding that the motivation for organizations to become authorizers is also important. 

“Did the mayor of the Big Island just sort of wake up one morning and decide, ‘Wow, the County of Hawaii could be a charter school authorizer,’ or is the impetus coming from some of the schools who want an authorizer that is more to their liking?” Hutton said.  

Moving Forward

One thing that Hutton and charter school leaders seem to agree on is that charters need more funding and support.

When changes were being made to the charter school law several years ago, there was a discussion among lawmakers about creating an office within the Department of Education to work with charter schools. It’s an idea that Hutton says is worth revisiting.

And there’s also an issue of money. Although charter schools receive per-pupil funding, they do not get support for facilities in the same way that public schools in the Department of Education do. Paying market rents can put a huge strain on charter schools.

Students at Na Wai Ola Public Charter School in Mountain View on the Big Island.
Students at Na Wai Ola Public Charter School in Mountain View on the Big Island. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Funding is not just an issue for existing schools — financing plays a big role in decisions about authorizing new charter schools.

Fiscal constraints could contribute to a reluctance to authorize new schools when existing ones are not necessarily well-funded, says Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at the University of Hawaii.

This year, Buyukacar applied for a new federal Department of Education grant for charter startups, something she hopes could boost her chances with the Charter Commission. Leaders of another proposed charter, Alakai O Kauai, have raised more than $20,000 online in recent months in an effort to demonstrate they can get the capital they need to launch a school.

Buyukacar says she understands the need for the Charter Commission to be selective about the schools it approves. But she would like to see a system in place that allows for greater communication and support during the application process.

Even if the makeup of the commission changes in coming months or the Board of Education approves more authorizers, Shon says it’s unlikely that the potential for approval will change much for this year’s round of new school applications.

“I wouldn’t look to see a whole slew of new charters popping up in the near future,” Shon said. “I think there is a consensus right now, stated or not so stated, that (the BOE) needs to step back and reassess the role of the commission and the staff.”

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