Charter school bill passes amid criticism
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By Alice Keesing
Advertiser Education Writer
A bill that intended to bring more clarity to Hawai'i's charter school reform movement appears to be sowing more confusion instead.
The bill, which was passed yesterday by the Legislature, attempts to streamline the application process for charter schools, and while some say it will strengthen the state's fledgling reform movement, others say it will cripple it.
Charter school legislation developed into one of the most contentious education issues this session, but one thing that everyone agreed on was that something had to be done to the 1999 law, which allowed the creation of 25 New Century charter schools.
The charter applicants and the Board of Education, which approves the charters, have become increasingly bogged down in uncertainty and red tape as they try to get the reform movement off the ground.
Six charter schools already are open and another six are ready to start this fall.
Like independent public schools, charters are free to manage their own money and experiment with curriculum. But advocates say they have been caught up in much of the red tape they were created to avoid.
In one situation, as the board tried to ensure health and safety at the new schools, applicants found themselves in a Catch-22 where they could not get a charter without a facility lease, but could not get a lease without a charter.
Senate Education Chairman Sen. Norman Sakamoto said the new bill attempts to break that deadlock by allowing the board to grant provisional charters to give applicants the time to meet all requirements.
The bill also establishes a seven-member review panel to go over applications and make recommendations to the board.
But Mary Anne Raywid of the League of Women Voters this week asked legislators to defeat the bill partly because it puts too much control in the board's hands.
Four of the seven panelists will be board members and the board also will decide any appeals.
"Since the core purpose of the charter school idea is to challenge the exclusive control of boards of education, this makes no sense," Raywid said.
Board member Donna Ikeda said the board must maintain oversight of the charters because the board is responsible for them.
"It's the state that will be held responsible if they're not in compliance with ADA, for example," she said.
Ikeda, who provided input for the bill, said it provides some assurance that money for charter schools will not come from other public schools.
Under the new bill, charters are no longer guaranteed the "small school subsidy" that helped pay for "fixed" positions such as school principals.
Again, charter advocates say that will end up hurting them.
"Small schools will lose, in some cases, over half of their budget," said Libby Oshiyama, president of the Hawai'i Association of Charter Schools.
House Education Chairman Rep. Ken Ito said he was surprised at the opposition to the bill, because it was drafted in collaboration with representatives of the charter schools as well as the board and department.
"The charter school movement, I really want it to move," he said. "I'm very disappointed that there's a lot of disagreement."
While it remains unclear whether the bill will bring any clarity to the reform movement, the work will continue after the legislative session is over, said Ito, D-48th (Kane'ohe).
"Nothing is set in stone," he said. "We can improve it."
Advertiser Staff Writer Lynda Arakawa contributed to this report.