BY JIM DOOLEY – Hawaii legislators are planning a complete overhaul of the state’s charter school system in the wake of
“glaring concerns” about lack of accountability and even possible fraud at some schools.
A task force has been studying proposed changes to the law that will result in “essentially a new charter school system,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda, D-24th (Kaneohe, Kaneohe MCAB, Kailua, Enchanted Lake), chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Her comments came at the close of briefing yesterday from Hawaii Auditor Marion on serious problems uncovered at charter schools.
Higa’s report, charter schools audit, found that charter schools enjoy “autonomy without accountability” in how they spend nearly $50 million in state general funds annually.
The state’s Charter School Review Panel has “delegated core monitoring and reporting responsibilities to the local school boards, removing itself—and outside oversight—from the charter school system,” Higa reported.
The audit found state oversight so lax that student performance scores and even enrolment figures were unverified by the state.
“We found that five schools failed to meet federal No Child Left Behind testing standards. Test scores from several of those schools were substantially lower than other public schools in their districts,” the audit said.
“Four schools misreported enrollment numbers” which are used to calculate the level of state funding for the schools, Higa reported.
At one school, Higa said, her office could not verify the enrollment of 28 students,which meant the school could have received as much as $160,000 too much in state funding in the 2009-10 school year.
Lack of oversight of schools by the Review Panel, the state’s Charter School Administrative Office and the local charter school boards “has resulted in school spending and employment practices that are unethical and illegal,” the audit said.
At one downtown Honolulu charter school, the Myron B. Thompson Academy, Higa found $133,000 in overpayments to staff.
The institution, which was repeatedly criticized by Higa’s audit for a variety of problems, has denied any wrongdoing.
Charter schools in Hawaii have been “operating without any real outside oversight since the first charter school opened in 1995,” the audit said.
“The contract that charter schools made with the public to provide greater accountability in exchange for greater autonomy is not only broken, it may have never existed in the first place,” the audit said.
In the 2009-10 school year, 31 charter schools were in operation here, educating some 7,800 students – about 4.5 per cent of overall public school enrollment.
Most of the schools are on Oahu and the Big Island and more than half of them are centered around the Native Hawaiian culture.
Charter schools here and elsewhere around the country are given flexibility to try new and innovative approaches to learning and education.
As Higa’s audit reported, that freedom is supposed to be accompanied by increased accountability.
“Since some of these new approaches may work and others may not, a robust reporting and accountability structure is essential to ensuring that good charter schools are identified, cultivated, and emulated, while unsuccessful ones are closed,” Higa said.