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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Nothing magical about charter schools — just do the math

By Robert M. Rees

The worse things get, the greater the appeal of apocalyptic panaceas. There is almost always justification for these changes but rarely an idea that by itself will offer relief.

Such may be the case in the clamor for charter schools, the publicly funded but privately managed alternatives to our traditional public schools.

Of the 88,000 public schools in the United States, only 3,000 are charters able to operate outside the jurisdiction of school boards and beyond the venue of some labor unions. In Hawai'i, only 27 of 284 public schools are charters.

Yet, in spite of their small numbers, charter schools are cited by proponents as the cure for our educational woes. President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind policy prescribes conversion to charter status as the remedy for chronically failing traditional schools.

In Hawai'i, Gov. Linda Lingle has asked that the number of charter schools be expanded.

On the other hand, voters in Washington state overwhelmingly voted last November for Referendum 55 to stop cold legislation that would have authorized a charter school experiment. In Hawai'i, the state

Legislature this year has already deferred House Bill 546, a proposal to implement Lingle's push for more charter schools.

The vehement debate has ossified into ideological cheerleading. Many conservatives have adopted the well-intended charter experiment as another stalking horse for less government, more privatization and institutionalization of survival of the fittest.

Traditional liberals see charters as an affront to a unionized workforce and as a challenge to the free education that is supposed to democratize our society by offering equal opportunity in the melting pot of America.

This ideological chasm has transformed what should be a learning experience, a small-scale experiment with charter schools, into yet another culture war in which children are held hostage. When Hawai'i's legislative auditor singled out one charter school, Waters of Life in Puna, as what "really awful" is, students were herded before the Board of Education's Charter Schools Committee to tearfully herald the virtues of charters.

Afterward, a newly elected and astounded member of the Board of Education, Cec Heftel, incredulously wondered, "Is this the way we run our schools?"

The crusaders and their conscripted children have overrun or at least obfuscated four major issues or questions:

• The first is whether charter schools per se educate our children as well as do traditional schools. Nationally, an analysis by the American Federation of Teachers of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress study, the nation's

report card, concluded that children in charter schools perform worse on math and reading than their counterparts in traditional schools. This was consistent with what California and Michigan have discovered.

Editorialized the New York Times: "The reports show that there is nothing magical about the charter system when it comes to rebuilding failing schools."

Conversely, 4,500 students in Hawai'i's charter schools on average scored higher last year on the Hawai'i State Assessment than did the 180,000 students in traditional schools.

In addition, Kamehameha Schools reported reduced absenteeism in charters and that Native Hawaiians performed significantly better on the SAT-9 reading test than did their Hawaiian counterparts in traditional schools.

Others, however, note that charter test scores in Hawai'i do not fall into a normal bell-curve but rather into a dumbbell pattern with only a few charter schools — Education Lab, Lanikai and others — skewing the average upward.

• A second issue surrounding charters is that of governance. The Hawai'i Legislative Auditor's report of January criticized what it sees as a vaguely worded charter school law. Of that law, Hawai'i's executive director of charter schools, Jim Shon, says, "The law is weird. It says I'm under the supervision of charter schools and the Board of Education." This weirdness is the primary reason that the previous executive director, Dewey Kim, resigned.

Heftel, noting that the executive director has two masters, calls the arrangement "a formula for inadequate performance." He asserts that the Board of Education has no real control or authority over charters, a lack confirmed when a supervisor of Lihu'e's charter school pled guilty to felony counts of assaulting her 11-year old son. Board of Education chair Breene Harimoto called Shon to find out what was going on, but the charter school's directors responded they were in charge.

Governance ambiguity and perhaps too much autonomy for charters have led to financial difficulties. The largest charter school company in California suddenly closed down last fall and stranded 10,000 students. Waters of Life, when audited, was $257,000 in debt.

• A third important question buried in the ideological firefight is whether or how much the state should abdicate its moral and legal obligations when it pays for privately-

managed schools. The American Prospect has reported that some charters have helped themselves financially through "an unsavory strategy of discouraging families with learning-disabled children from enrolling."

Despite this risk, Hawai'i's charter law permits a charter school to reject a disabled child by simply announcing it isn't up to the task. The result in Hawai'i is that only 8 percent of enrollment at charter schools can be considered disabled versus 13 percent at public schools. This abdication of responsibility shifts an even heavier burden to the traditional schools for severely disabled and autistic children.

• A fourth issue is cost and the diversion of funds from public schools to charters. Proponents of charters first argued that public education is filled with waste and that private management would do better for less. Now, however, these same people argue they need the same $9,000 per pupil spent annually in traditional schools.

Overall, then, charter schools have not been much of a learning experience. Even the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy lobby for charters, acknowledges, "To date we lack definitive evidence on the effectiveness of charter schools."

The next steps ought to be first a moratorium on charter school expansion and second a major study, conducted perhaps by the education experts at the University of Hawai'i, to isolate those discriminating factors that make a school successful in Hawai'i and that can be replicated.

Intuitively, it may very well turn out to be as simple and non-ideological as smaller classes and qualified teachers.

Robert M. Rees is moderator of 'Olelo Community Television's "Counterpoint" and Hawai'i Public Radio's "Talk of the Islands." He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.