Hawaii eases limit on number of new charter schools
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
A new law increases the number of new charter schools that can be formed in Hawai'i and revamps the way the state's Charter School Review Panel reauthorizes them.
The legislation, signed last week by Gov. Linda Lingle, does little to resolve a long-standing debate over equity in funding between public charter schools and their regular public school counterparts.
Lawmakers say it wasn't intended to.
"There is still work to be done in funding. We shouldn't be looking at this (legislation) to address that," said Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), chairman of the state Senate Education and Housing Committee. "This bill does do some changes, but the discussion regarding funding will be going forward."
Bob Roberts, chief financial officer for the Charter School Administrative Office, said the new law does change the charter school funding formula ever so slightly, but not enough to address the issue of equity.
"The language about the funding formula had said 'all means of financing,' and the change is to 'general funds.' It's more restrictive than what was previously in the law," Roberts said. "It doesn't solve the major problem, and that is that charters are not receiving funding for their facilities costs, which continues to be in our view the major gap between (Department of Education) schools and charter schools."
Charter school per-pupil funding has been declining. In the 2007-08 school year, charters received $8,149 per student. That dropped in 2008-09 to $7,588 per student. This year charters received $6,258.
DOE's per-pupil dollar amount for next year is estimated at $6,984, if only state general fund allocations are considered, said Adele Chong, DOE budget director. That amount includes special education services provided to charter schools. If federal funds and hurricane relief fund money are added in, the per-pupil allocation is about $9,522, she said.
Lawmakers say that the law requires DOE to provide special education, and cover charter schools' costs for insurance, the employer share of employee health insurance, Social Security, Medicare and pension plan payments.
The new law increases the number of additional charter schools that can be approved, also known as the state's charter school cap. Upon the approval of administrative rules, the Charter School Review Panel may authorize up to three new start-up charters — the previous law had said only one — for each existing charter that has received a three-year or longer accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges or a comparable accreditation authority.
Roberts said while charter school officials support the increase in the cap, they had urged for the cap to be repealed entirely.
"We would prefer to have no capping language at all," Roberts said. "We believe that the panel, who is the body charged by the Legislature to approve charter schools, has a rigorous and appropriate process for chartering schools."
The new law also requires that charters be reauthorized by the review panel no later than four years after the initial issue of a charter and every six years after that.
Finding and paying for facilities has also been a major issue for charter schools since their inception. The law requires the DOE to offer any unused classroom space to charter schools.
"Schools such as Wailupe Valley closing, if the law had been in place then, charters would have had an opportunity to line up and propose using the site," Sakamoto said.