Support, with conditions
Charter schools — publicly funded but quasi-independent, with their own school boards — are gaining political momentum here and in Washington.
Through the federal government's competitive Race to the Top program, many states, including Hawai'i, have promised more support for charter schools in an effort to win federal funding. To that end, Gov. Linda Lingle signed Act 144, which allows more startup charter schools to open and requires "reasonable consideration" for charters to take over vacant school facilities.
But Race to the Top also comes with an important condition: more vigorous oversight and accountability of charter schools. The feds rightly criticized the state for lax oversight of charters. In response, Act 144 requires the Charter School Review Panel to review schools more frequently, a modest improvement at best.
Hawai'i's charter schools offer alternative teaching techniques and curricula, such as Hawaiian language or agricultural arts. They can help students who can't handle a traditional classroom. They can spawn useful innovations that can spread through the regular school system. All this can be valuable, but it's not enough.
Charter schools, like any publicly funded school, are obligated to educate their children to meet basic standards of achievement. Students should perform well not only in the Hawaiian language or agricultural arts, but in English, math and science. So far, Hawai'i charter schools' performance on standardized testing is just as weak as the traditional schools.
Two things would help: First, a more equitable formula for funding charter schools that includes support for facilities. Second, a review panel that sets and enforces clear and ambitious goals for charter school performance. These efforts could help charters rise above the mediocre middle — and make the case for this tempting alternative to Hawai'i's vast and rigid education bureaucracy.