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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

Free charter schools: Put the children first

By David Rizor

The recent dismissal of Jim Shon as the charter school executive director raises serious questions about the function of the Hawai'i State Board of Education. The flexibility and local control that forms the basic philosophy of charter schools has proven to be a challenge for the antiquated structure of the state school board, exposing a need to not only free charter schools from that structure, but also to take a long look at overall school governance in Hawai'i.

One of the reasons charter schools were created in Hawai'i was to provide models of learning that might be used in the regular public schools. What has been learned so far is that innovative schools and centralized control in Honolulu don't mix. It is little wonder that Shon couldn't please the Board of Education. Charter schools are grassroots, bottom-up, locally controlled and accountable. The charter school law requires the director to be an "advocate" and to provide the Board of Education with "independent analysis." This is completely counter to the old-style, top-down structure of the BOE.

Nowhere in the law does it state that the charter school director must agree with members of the school board or express support for policies that are not in the best interest of charter schools. In other words, the charter school executive director's first responsibility is to the kids, not in maintaining the political system. This practically assures that disagreements will arise.

Whether you have an opinion about charter schools or not, the modeling here paints a sad picture for innovation and for tailoring local schools to meet the needs of students. Parents always ask, "What's best for my child?" and the nimble structure of charter schools almost daily asks and adjusts to the question: "What's best for children?" Small organizations can do that. With one board controlling a $2 billion budget across multiple islands, the BOE simply can't be that flexible or responsive. That governance structure is completely antithetical to adaptable charter schools and school innovation in general. Anyone raised in the centralized governance mindset seems to fear such flexibility, even if it is best for children.

Centralized control of schools is logical if the outcome you are looking for is simply organizational control. If providing what is best for children is the goal, that is a different matter. In creating a $2 billion education budget, how many times could one suppose that the first question asked is "What's best for children?" More likely, the first question is "How will this fit in the system?" There is an inverse relationship between the size of the school organization and the likelihood that the first question will be "What is best for children?"

It is time for the board and the Legislature to do serious self-reflection, and implement a professional approach that utilizes best practices in school governance, rather than political maneuvering.

The knowledge, energy and genuine caring for children in the charter schools system are resources that can serve to change the face of education in Hawai'i. The need for the Board of Education to step into an effective leadership role in the governance of schools, rather than stay caught in the political struggle surrounding them, has never been greater, and the timing has never been more opportune. A board that sets the tone for a common direction based on the well-being of our children will pull together themselves, the DOE, the charter school system and the Legislature to work together placing our children at the center of the discussion.

The board and Legislature must be willing to recognize that separate governance of charter schools and perhaps separate governance of schools among the Islands is the best thing to do for children, even if it breaks out of the bureaucratic shell that has constrained our schools to rank near the bottom among states in student performance.

David Rizor is the director of the Volcano School of Arts & Sciences in Volcano. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.