In a number of ways, Hawaii’s charter schools emerged from the pandemic ahead of the pack.

Enrollment at the state’s 37 charter schools grew slightly this year, despite an overall decline in the number of kids attending Hawaii public schools.

Charter students also fared better on standardized tests in 2021, with 66% of charter students deemed proficient in English, compared to 50% of public school students overall.

But behind the scenes, many charter schools continue to have a contentious relationship with the agency that oversees them.

DreamHouse Ewa Beach High School DreamHouse Center Charter School
Enrollment has been growing at the state’s charter schools, including DreamHouse in Ewa Beach, even as public school enrollment has declined. Megan Tagami/Civil Beat/2022

The Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission was established in 2012 to increase accountability within the state’s charter school system after several schools were found to be fiscally and academically deficient.

A decade after its creation, the commission is failing to respect schools’ autonomy while simultaneously not holding schools sufficiently accountable, according to a performance evaluation finalized by the state Board of Education earlier this year.

Hawaii is unique in the national charter landscape in that there is only one entity in the state that can approve the creation of new charter schools. This means more than 12,000 students are depending on the BOE and the Charter Commission finding a better path forward.

Jennifer Hiro, director of Innovations Public Charter School on Hawaii island, said charter schools were created as catalysts of change, and to create choice for Hawaii’s unique communities.

To do that successfully, she argues, charter schools need more freedom than the commission’s framework gives them. 

A Contentious Relationship

Designed to foster innovation in education, charter schools offer alternative public school models, from Hawaiian immersion programs to arts and science-focused learning. The schools operate independently, but their financial and academic performance is monitored by the Charter School Commission.

The Board of Education is supposed to conduct a performance review of the commission every five years.

In the initial 2017 evaluation, the board found that the commission lacked strategic vision and had a negative and counterproductive relationship with schools.

The most recent evaluation, released by the BOE in January, deemed the commission “in need of improvement” in 11 of the 22 criteria used for the evaluation.

BOE Board of Education Finance and Infrastructure Committee Chair Lynn Fallin listens to testimony duirng meeting.
BOE Member Lynn Fallin says the commission has an ambitious plan for addressing the numerous deficiencies identified in its last performance evaluation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The report said the commission failed to clearly define school autonomy in its strategic plan, and that the current charter contract does not provide clarity on the commission’s authority over educational programming, staffing and school budgets.

Commission Chair Cathy Ikeda said that the level of autonomy granted to charter schools needs to be clarified between all involved parties – the BOE, the Department of Education, the commission, charter schools, and education department attorneys general.

“If you are looking at autonomy as the goal, I don’t see how we could improve, because we are driven by statute and we have to hold schools accountable,” she said.

Steve Hirakami, director of Hawaii Academy of Arts and Sciences in Pahoa, says that the commission infringes on autonomy by micromanaging schools.

Hirakami, who has been involved in Hawaii’s charter schools for over 20 years, said that if charter schools lose their autonomy, they lose their purpose.

From enrollment disputes to complaints that the commission overloads small schools with an unnecessarily heavy load of reports, some school leaders say that, at times, the commission makes it harder for schools to succeed.

Last year the commission issued Connections Public Charter School in Hilo a warning because the school’s special education case managers, who are meant to assist students with specific disabilities, were helping with a group of students with broader disabilities.

Connections Interim Director Damon Murphy, who was the school’s special education director at the time, said he had to stop special education case managers’ involvement with the other group and personally take on case management for 17 students with broader disabilities.

Murphy said he thought the commission could have shown more empathy at a time when disadvantaged students were experiencing substantial learning loss nationwide and the school was having trouble finding substitute teachers, let alone specialized staff.

“I think that the kids lost out,” he said.

Hirakami said the rigidity of the commission’s current contract also stifles innovation by requiring 37 unique schools to sign a one-size-fits-all contract and discouraging negotiation.

“It’s a one way street with them,” he said.

Just before the current charter contract was finalized last May, Deputy Attorney General for Hawaii Public Charter Schools Gregg Ushiroda suggested 27 amendments. He wrote that the commission was micromanaging and overreaching its authority in several sections, including dictating schools’ processes for selecting board members and keeping records.

Where the contract states that the commission is not required to allow a school to remedy a problem before revoking its charter, Ushiroda wrote that the commission had overstepped its bounds. He said the section was “particularly troubling” as it appeared to violate charter schools’ right to due process.

None of Ushiroda’s suggestions were adopted in the contract.

Working On Improvements

Most states have multiple entities that can authorize new charter schools. Guidelines from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers state that plans should be in place for schools to transfer to another authorizer, should their current authorizer be shut down.

In Hawaii, there is no backup, much less a backup plan. BOE board member Lynn Fallin says that the BOE has not yet discussed alternatives, should the commission ultimately fail to improve operations and relationships with schools. However, Hawaii charter school law states that authorizers may be shut down if they persistently fail to adhere to nationally recognized principles and standards.

The BOE put out a call for authorizer applications in May, but Fallin said that no applications were submitted.

Fallin says progress has been made since the 2017 evaluation, and that this time around the commission’s newly elected chair has presented the board with an ambitious plan for addressing the numerous deficiencies identified in the evaluation.

Ikeda, who became chair in July, said that the commission is already on a path to growth. Starting this month, two advisors with charter school leadership experience will join the commission meetings as advisors.

However, some charter school directors and board members worry that these plans will not be enough to improve relationships with the commission.

John Thatcher, who is a member of the governing board at public charter schools Kanuikapono on Kauai and Connections in Hilo, says the commission continues to operate with guidelines lacking in specificity, thereby setting the schools up for failure.

Kamalani Academy charter school located in Wahiawa. Grade levels are from kindergarten thru 8th grade..
Kamalani Academy in Wahiawa lost out on $1.4 million in per-pupil funding during the pandemic after the school was flagged for using a virtual learning program that the commission had not approved.  Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“It’s a moving target — we can’t respond to something they bring forward because they don’t have any policies on it,” he said.

Twenty three schools will renew their contracts in December, including Connections and Kanuikapono, and Thatcher says both schools are worried but are afraid to speak out against the commission for fear of disciplinary action or closure.

“It’s just a very hostile environment with a commission,” he said.

Not all charter school leaders agree that the commission is hostile. Paul Kepka, director of Kamaile Academy in Waianae, said he has a strong working relationship with the commission and commission staff.

“When we’ve reached out for help or support, it’s been there for us,” he said.

Kepka was quick to point out that charter schools are inherently unique. Kamaile Academy is a conversion school, meaning it was previously a DOE school that converted to the charter system, as opposed to startup charter schools — which have never operated under the DOE.

Administrators of older startups, like Hirakami, might be more likely to bemoan the loss of a high level of autonomy that newer schools and some conversion schools never had in the first place.

But Hirakami, for one, insists that accountability should not come at the cost of experimentation.

“When you stick your neck out, when you invent something or when you explore something — there’s going to be failure, but failure leads to success, and if you don’t try, then you won’t know,” he said.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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