Hawaii Bar Journal
February 2011 #1.
STATE LAW IGNITES Hawaii Charter School Movement
Hawaii State Bar JournalFebruary 2011STATE LAW IGNITES Hawaii Charter School Movementby Melissa PavhcekA hundred community members gathered one rainy morning, holding hands on a verdant Anahola, Kauai hillside. In a strong clear voice, one young boy quoted Plutarch:
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but wood to be kindled."
As a rainbow emerged, a lone hawk appeared in the clearing sky; students quietly walled, one by one, into the center of a circle of supporters, each child praising their experiences at Kanuikapono Learning Center, a public charter school, via poem or personal statement.
The occasion was a celebration of the school's expansion, ongoing accomplishments and mainly these students' achievements. It was also an announcement to educators, legislators and other community leaders: Hawaii's public charter schools are thriving in ways that words alone cannot convey; these and other charter school students' minds are burning with the desire to learn, and for those open to the viewpoint, it's an aifirmation that Hawaii has a source of educational innovation and student promise hidden "in plain sight" in its 31 public charter schools.
Charter schools are pubhc schools, do not charge tuition, and do not pick and choose enrollment, with only lotteries or other non-discriminatory enrollment methods, along with some facilities challenges, to limit enrollment. Many Hawaii charter schools have lengthy enrollment waiting lists, some numbering in the hundreds.
In 2010, Hawaii's public charter schools became the focus of national attention by refusing to close on the state's designated "furlough Fridays." Instead, school leaders opted to make funding cuts elsewhere in their budgets.(fn1) Meanwhile, amid the flurry of media attention surrounding President Obama's "Race to the Top" ("RTT") reform grant program. Education Secretary Arne Duncan admonished Hawaii for having the nation's shortest school year Hawaii subsequently won a $75 million share of the $3.4 billion available in the second round of the grant competition.
RTT grant funding was significantly conditioned on states' demonstrating charter school support.(fn2) Hawaii's charter school laws were changed in 2010 to help Hawaii's application chances Hawaii was one of only nine states, along with the District of Columbia, to receive that money in the second round. Despite their recent successes, however, Hawaii's public charter schools have also come under intense public scrutiny There are requests for increased regulatory oversight and requirements for more stringent fiscal and administrative accountability.(fn3)
This article examines Hawaii's charter school law and its impact on the evolution of its 31 public charter schools.
Seeds of School Reform
Public charter schools are intended to improve the public school system by offering students and their parents educational choices. The first charter school in the United States opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1991.(fn4) Today more than a million public school students attend the nearly 5,000 public charter schools across the country.(fn5) Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of traditional school districts. In Hawaii's unique single system, they operate outside the state educational and local educational agencies, which for the Hawaii DOE are one and the same. They are tuition-free, supported by public funding and, like traditional public schools, are held to state and federal academic standards. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, many families choose a charter school because of an innovative curriculum, others because of a strong focus on academic achievement, and still others because of promising alternatives to underperforming traditional public schools.
The National Charter School Research Project conducted surveys of empirical research on how public charter schools perform compared to traditional public schools.(fn6) According to this report, studies that use the best data and the most sophisticated research techniques showed charter schools outperforming comparable traditional public schools. The findings indicated that public charter schools had the strongest positive effects in elementary school reading and middle school math. The report concluded that the magnitude of positive charter school effects is relatively large when compared with other school reform efforts, such as reducing class size.
A Brief History
In Hawaii, the first charter schools were authorized through Act 272 of the 1994 state Legislature. Citing the need to reform public education, and acknowledging that reforming Hawaii's public education system would be no easy task, the state legislature sought to make schools more autonomous and to allow school staff and parents, in collaboration, to establish "student-centered" schools as individual learning units within the public school system.(fn7)
The new law allowed then-existing Department of Education schools to convert to "student-centered" schools. The following year, Wai'alae Elementary converted to a "student-centered" school and by the following year Lanikai Elementary followed suit.
The 1994 law allowed exemptions from many state laws, but notably not collective bargaining.(fn8) Unlike many of their mainland counterparts, Hawaii charter school teachers and staff are governed by state collective bargaining laws.
The widely acclaimed 2010 documentary "Waiting for Superman" indicted public education as a whole, largely based on dysfunctions it attributed to unionized public employees, particularly teachers. At the same time, it hailed the national charter school movement as a source of hope, praising charters' autonomy while criticizing what it portrayed as inflexibility by public employee unions. In Hawaii, however, it is the autonomous nature of school-based decision-making, and not freedom from unionism, that is more frequently cited as a source of innovation and promise for the entire education system. Hawaii's law has not been without its fits and starts...