For the first time in a decade, there’s new management on the way for a $1.5 million annual grant provided by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to Hawaiian-focused public charter schools, and not everyone is happy about that.

OHA recently awarded a contract to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement to manage the money distributed to 17 charter schools that integrate Hawaiian language and culture into their curriculum.

Critics complain the council is not qualified because it’s a political organization, not an educational one. But OHA says the organization was selected based on an open competitive bidding process.

“While we understand that transitioning to a new funding administrator will have its challenges, our goal is to minimize the impacts this change will have on the charter schools and students,” said OHA Chief Executive Officer Kamana’opono Crabbe.

OHA’s Kamana’opono Crabbe said the competitive bidding process was fair. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

As of 2006, OHA — a quasi-state agency that provides funding and advocates on behalf of native Hawaiians — has provided $18.6 million in funding to these Hawaiian immersion charter schools as a supplement to what they get from the state Department of Education.

Administration of the funding historically had been handled by a community nonprofit, Kanu O Ka Aina Learning Ohana.

Two years ago, OHA transitioned to a competitive grant process to select an administrator of the charter school funds. KALO got the contract for last year, but this year, OHA awarded it to CNHA, saying it scored higher based on 13 criteria, including working with Hawaiian-focused charter schools.

Petition Seeks Reconsideration

Some members of the Hawaiian Focused Charter Schools Alliance are protesting the decision, saying CNHA is out of touch with the charter schools it purports to serve and wants to advance its own agenda.

“CNHA is a political organization. They have never been in the business of education in terms of talking to us as stakeholders and coming to visionary meetings with us. It’s like they’re jumping into this whole process,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, the parent of a student who attends Halau Ku Mana New Century Charter School in Honolulu.

The alliance, also known as the Na Lei Na’auau Native Hawaiian Charter School Alliance, has petitioned the nine elected members of OHA Board of Trustees to reverse the decision. Parents representing 13 charter schools have sent 160 letters so far to OHA opposing the new manager of funds, Sonoda-Pale said in a letter sent to supporters Wednesday.

“The education of our keiki is too important to risk on an entity with political rather than educational priorities who has not built rapport and trust with the Hawaiian Charter School ‘ohana,” the online petition states.

Critics also plan to testify at the OHA Board of Trustee meeting Thursday at 10 a.m. at OHA headquarters.

No one disagrees that OHA’s supplemental funding provides much-needed revenue to Hawaiian immersion charter schools.

The schools are independently operated but overseen by the DOE. They rely on the supplemental money for operational costs, say community members.

Traditional DOE public schools receive roughly $12,500 on average in per pupil funding. Charters get roughly $7,000 in per pupil funding, but don’t get facilities or utilities funding, except for conversion schools. The Hawaiian-focused charter schools serve about 4,200 students statewide, about 75 percent of whom are Native Hawaiian.

Opponents of the decision to have CNHA administer the supplemental say the shift will negatively impact the students at the center of it all.

“KALO has a long history of serving the HFCS well and their mission and vision is aligned with HFCS,” Sonoda-Pale told Civil Beat. “With no consultation with HFCS parents or schools, CNHA applied and was granted $1.5 million of OHA monies that are crucial to the success and survival of HFCS.”

But CNHA’s chief executive officer and president, Michelle Kauhane, said the organization is well-positioned to take over the administration of the funds and has engaged with charter schools and other educational organizations at the state and federal levels.

Michelle Kauhane at Farrington HS. Hawaiian forum. 10 nov 2016
Michelle Kauhane, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, says it is well-positioned to administer money distributed to Native Hawaiian charter schools. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

CNHA is a nonprofit that works to empower the Native Hawaiian community through economic, cultural and political development. The group says it has raised awareness of Native Hawaiian education by organizing a White House summit on the topic while Barack Obama was president and hosting the former U.S. secretary of education for a Native Hawaiian charter school visit, among other activities.

Additionally, the group has convened a Native Hawaiian education caucus annually, according to Kauhane, and brought both foundations and federal officials to visit Native Hawaiian charter schools in Waimea, Anahola and elsewhere on Big Island.

“While not every individual at a school might understand CNHA’s work, our policy center has done a significant amount of work,” she said.

CNHA has 17 years of experience in grant management, and has previously been awarded competitive contracts by such agencies as the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

“I hear we’re not an educator,” Kauhane said. “It was a competitive grant process. (OHA) didn’t ask for an educator, it specifically asked for experience in grants administration and coordination and convening.”

Underscoring the controversy is some parents’ fear that CNHA will try to advance a political agenda in its new role. The nonprofit is known to support federal recognition, which is at odds with those who support the idea of Hawaiian sovereignty.

“This has nothing to do with federal recognition. I’m not going to communicate with students,” Kauhane said. “CNHA is going to be a grant administrator.”

Funding To Stay ‘Consistent’

OHA decided to switch to a competitive grant application process to “improve our grant making by awarding more funding through a competitive process that encourages fairness and participation,” said Crabbe.

KALO and CNHA both submitted applications to administer the charter school funding by a May 12 deadline. An internal OHA panel selected CNHA based on a point system. One of the selection criteria was experience working with Hawaiian charter schools.

In June, the panel notified the Board of Trustees of its decision. Still, the contract has not been finalized. The $1.5 million to be administered is for the current fiscal year, which began July 1 and runs through June 30, 2018.

“Our recent selection of (CNHA) to administer $3 million in funds over the next two years to the charter schools represents our continued commitment to support the Hawaiian-focused charter school movement,” Crabbe said.

He added that funding for the immersion charter schools this year will be “consistent” with last year’s levels.

Kauhane said CNHA has the same motivation as parents in the community: to advance interests of Native Hawaiian students in the charters so they can receive a quality education whose funding is on par with students elsewhere in the public school system.

“Our motivation for doing this was we need to leverage those dollars so we do have parity for students,” she said. “The framing that CNHA will take money away from students is simply false. The students and schools will get exactly the same amount they were getting last year based on a formula they have at OHA.”

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