Hawaii Removes Obstacle to Charter Schools

Published August 1, 2007

As a charter school champion engaged in a difficult struggle, Hawaii’s chief executive has claimed a key victory for educational choice in her state.

On May 31, Gov. Linda Lingle (R) signed into law Act 115, which affords charter schools on the seven Hawaiian Islands more independence from the state bureaucracy than they have previously enjoyed.

The new law transfers authorizing power from the State Board of Education to a separate Charter School Review Panel, which formerly operated only in an advisory role. Though the State Board still appoints panel members, it now acts only as an appeals board for denied applicants.

Bureaucratic Opposition

Hawaii’s State Board is the only one nationwide with direct oversight of all public schools, without any local or intermediate boards.

“Our Board and Department [of Education] have been very hesitant to provide the kind of autonomy that will ensure charter schools can be successful,” said Lingle’s senior policy advisor, Linda Smith.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group based in Washington, DC, agreed.

“Because the state has made it not only difficult to get a charter but almost impossible to get equitable funding or get the flexibility the schools need to achieve, the [charter school] movement there has shrunk in recent years,” Allen said. “Hawaii’s charter law needs a boost.”

Allen lauded Lingle as a charter school champion, and noted her previous reform efforts have been stymied by the State Board and other political opponents.

“We have long followed [Hawaii’s] progress and are so impressed with her command of the issue,” said Allen. “But her proposals have almost been summarily dismissed each time.”

Changing Methods

Act 115 marks a turning point. Besides expanding autonomy by changing the authorizer, the new law also establishes a formula guaranteeing charter schools are funded at the same rate as other public schools. The state now will provide equivalent funding for charter facilities, whereas it previously allotted them no capital dollars at all.

Smith said some Hawaii charter school operators have housed students in trailers, tents, and warehouses–even part of a mortuary. “They’ve been creative, imaginative, and determined,” she said.

The bill passed through both houses of the legislature with no votes cast in opposition.

“We believe it’s because we’ve done a lot of work informing our legislators what a great job charter schools are doing,” Smith said, adding that the state’s charter schools tend to be safer, as well as better-performing and -attended.

Hawaii currently has 27 charter schools serving 6,500 of the state’s 180,000 public school students. Smith said total public school enrollment figures are the same as 30 years ago, the stagnation largely caused by parents choosing private education and homeschooling.

“Charter schools are the only growing segment of our public school system,” Smith said.

Important Innovations

Many parents are attracted to the traditional culture native Hawaiian groups teach in about half the state’s charter schools.

“This is just one of many innovations going on, and they need to continue,” Allen said.

Still, Hawaii is scheduled to limit the number of charter schools to 30 this year, Smith said. The cap is based on the number of current charters receiving accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Hawaii ranked 47th of 50 states in average math and reading scores on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and last in the percentage of schools that achieve Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“We have nowhere else to go but up in terms of our public education, and charters are going to play a role,” said Smith.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.