Monday, February 5, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, February 5, 2001

Charter schools: Is board getting cold feet?

Are the Board of Education and some lawmakers pulling back from their commitment to the charter school reform movement?

Recent signs suggest just that.

The latest involved the board turning away the application of a Big Island school for a charter until it can establish that it has met applicable building, health and fire codes.

This requirement is absurd. If the facilities met codes to an acceptable level when the school was run by the school board, why should that compliance be any less acceptable when it becomes a charter school?

This mini-squabble comes, in the telling words of Advertiser Education Writer Alice Keesing, "amid growing concern from board members and legislators who say there are too many unanswered questions about how to pay for the new schools and how to ensure they offer a safe and appropriate education."

The whole idea of charter schools, of course, is for "unanswered questions" to be tackled at the school level instead of Downtown Honolulu.

"How to pay for the new schools" is an intriguing question, since we’ve never been clear on why a charter school should cost more than the others. In a Sept. 18 letter to The Advertiser, Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said the new charter schools mandated by the Legislature in 1999 would cost $6.8 million more each year, a cost he attributed to "certain additional school personnel."

Assuming the charter schools agree to the need for additional staff, then isn’t it the whole point of the reform movement to leave to the charter schools the decision-making entailed in reallocating resources to fund the new positions?

The 1999 charter school legislation required the board to approve 25 charter schools. Under that law, as long as an application is complete, the board cannot turn it down. That’s a powerful endorsement of a concept that the board now appears to doubt.

We’ll never know for sure if charter schools are right for Hawaii until we give them the autonomy to prove themselves. The board and the Legislature must wish them well and then turn them loose.

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