When the Hawaii Department of Education turned to a new “weighted student formula” to fund schools in 2006, a pressing concern was how that model might negatively impact geographically isolated schools with low student enrollment.

Under the formula, small Hawaii schools with student populations fewer than 400 would lack sufficient funding “to operate and remain viable,” warned a committee of educators and community members to the state Board of Education in a January 2005 report.

Nearly 13 years later, that threat still looms.

Hana High and Elementary, a K-12 school on Maui’s east side that’s so remote it’s a two-hour drive to the nearest traffic light, has seen its budget reduced by a third from nearly $3 million in the 2008-09 school year to $2 million in the 2016-17 school year, its 2017-2020 academic plan notes.

Hana High and Elementary has seen its funding significantly cut in the last decade, forcing teachers to teach multiple subjects. 

“There were simply not enough students to generate the required funding (per-pupil) to provide for a full comprehensive school program,” that plan states.

The weighted student formula has led to “a devastating effect” on the ability of the Hana school — total enrollment of 349 this school year — “to meet all the needs of a PreK-12 grade complex,” the plan added.

“It works for 98 percent of schools,” Hana’s recently retired principal, Richard Paul, said of the weighted student formula. “But it doesn’t work for us.”

As a group of educators and community members known as the “committee on weights” next convenes in the coming months to recommend to the Board of Education any new weights or adjustments to the current funding formula, the concerns of small, remote schools will once again be front and center.

Under the weighted student formula, which was ushered into Hawaii’s public education system with the passage of Act 51 in 2004, all 256 non-charter DOE schools, with several exceptions, are given a base amount of funding, based on school type (elementary, middle or high) and number of students enrolled.

Additional funding is provided to schools that are either multi-track or on a neighbor island, and for schools with students who require boosted services, such as being economically disadvantaged, English language learners or gifted and talented.

DOE uses a matrix , for example, that provided Campbell High — the state’s largest school with an enrollment of roughly 3,000 students — $14 million this past school year. The state’s smallest 9-12 school, Kohala High, on north end of Big Island, with 265 students, received $1.65 million.

If you’re looking for the smallest school, Niihau High and Elementary, with a total student population of 9 this year, don’t bother. The tiny school, located on an island that requires special permission to visit, doesn’t get funded under the weighted student formula and instead receives separate DOE funding, which was $227,000 this school year.

The system was set up to provide greater autonomy to local school leaders in serving the educational needs of their students. At the same time, it aimed to make school funding more transparent and equitable by giving all students a fair shake at a quality education no matter their unique needs or circumstances.

Cumulatively, it has steered more money to Hawaii’s schools. In the seven years since the formula took effect in Hawaii in 2006-7 to 2012-13, the total amount of dollars allocated to public schools increased by 11.3 percent, from $655.4 million to $729.7 million, according to a June 2013 assessment of the weighted student formula done by the American Institutes for Research.

Today, of the DOE’s $1.9 billion operating budget, about 58 percent, or $948 million, is devoted to the weighted student formula program. The department is asking the Hawaii Legislature for an additional $6 million over the next two school years to bolster this program.

Small Schools Have Big Budget Strains

But some argue the system hammers the smallest schools, which sometimes don’t receive enough money through total pupil head count to afford to have someone teach just one subject or even supply textbooks.

At Hana, it’s led to cutting positions, including the school librarian.

“We don’t have enough kids to have our teachers teach a full load in their area, so they have to teach in other areas,” Paul, of Hana High and Elementary, said. “We had an English teacher teaching culinary (arts), and she didn’t even cook at home. But she was open that period. You get into those situations.”

The weighted factors haven’t fluctuated too much since the formula began. (Grade level and poverty are the two most widely-used weighting factors used by states around the country, according to the 2013 AIR report.)

In Hawaii, “geographic isolation” once was counted as a weighted factor, but eliminated in the 2011-12 school year in favor of a flat amount of $50,000 for the seven Hawaii schools classified as geographically remote: five schools on Molokai, plus the schools on Lanai and in Hana.

Combined, the student population for these schools — roughly 1,800 pupils — is just a tiny fraction of Hawaii’s total public school population of roughly 179,000 spread out among 256 traditional public schools. (Hawaii’s public charter schools receive a separate funding allocation from DOE.)

DOE officials have come up with some help for isolated schools. Through something called the “WSF reserve” fund, an additional $250,000 will be distributed to each of the seven remote schools, plus those located on Big Island’s Kau-Pahala area, annually during the next three years, according to minutes from the last “Committee on Weights” meeting.

The formula doesn’t necessarily fulfill the needs of these schools because they have additional transportation services since they’re so isolated, suffer from a higher teacher turnover due to lack of available housing and have less access to a reliable substitute pool, pointed out Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Laura Buller, a teacher at Molokai High, which has a total enrollment of 402 students, said insufficient funding has nearly decimated a foreign language program that once offered French, Japanese and Spanish. It only offers Hawaiian today. The lack of funding also makes difficult for students to travel to Oahu to compete in athletic games.

As for raising money, “this island is so fundraised out, we fundraise for everything,” she said. “We’re not asking for super fancy anything, we just need to be able to compete.”

Legislative Efforts

Exempting small, remote schools from the weighted student formula or providing supplemental funding for these schools to meet threshold instructional needs has been a longtime, if quixotic, mission by Hawaii’s neighbor island lawmakers.

Senator J Kalani English and Sen Kidani presser after the Governor Ige State of State address.
Sen. Kalani English has tried to address the effect of the formula on remote schools through various bills. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“I’ve been introducing these bills since when the formula passed. Since then, I could never get a hearing,” said state Sen. J. Kalani English, whose district includes Hana, Molokai and Lanai.

“It’s a real crisis in my district, but (the issue) doesn’t have the urgency as (other parts) of the system, because it involves so few people,” he said. “I believe that my constituents deserve an equal access to education.”

English’s Senate Bill 692, introduced this session, has made some headway. It proposes adding another layer of categorical funding to remote schools — which the bill defines as located at least an hour’s drive away from the nearest high school or by virtue of being located on Lanai or Molokai — for additional instructional and support staff.

Contact Key Lawmakers

The bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee and was referred to the Ways and Means Committee.

State Rep. Lynn DeCoite’s House Bill 783, meanwhile, which proposes something similar, never took off, as has been the case with similar House bills in previous years.

Buller, the Molokai High teacher, said less than adequate funding at her school gives students a narrower glimpse of opportunities beyond their school walls — overshadowing what education officials may have hoped would be a level playing field for Hawaii’s kids through weighted funding.

“The hard part is a lot of them don’t really know about what their choices are or how to get there,” she said. “That’s a huge challenge when you’re living in a small, isolated location with minimal economic diversity.”

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