January 6, 2020; Honolulu Civil Beat
Is a public charter school just like any other public school? Is there value in being independent and different? The education of the students of a Hawaiian middle school hangs on the answers to these questions. The uncertainty about their school’s future also illustrates the complicated and confusing reality of the nation’s public education system—or systems—in 2020.
During an evening meeting at the Waimea Middle School, a participant tripped over a bench in a dimly lit corridor and was injured. She sued the Hawaii Department of Education, which funds the school, and the Department agreed to settle the claim for $75,000. Nothing unusual in that; schools often find themselves working through similar situations. But in this case, because of the complexity of its status as a public charter school, not just a public school, the Waimea school finds itself alone.
State policy in Hawaii seeks to discourage unwarranted risks and ensure responsibility from those whom the state funds. In comments reported by the Honolulu Civil Beat, Rep. Sylvia Luke describes the approach as, “The department that generates the wrongdoing behavior, should pay. Otherwise, how will they ever change their ways?” Following through on this direction, the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission deducted the $75,000 from the Waimea Middle School’s funding, which threatens the school’s ability to pay its teachers and the continuation of its charter.
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Beneath the growth of charter schools lies the belief that permission to operate outside the framework of traditional public education systems lets them innovate, respond to parent needs and desires, and provide excellent education to students. Independence may bring all these benefits, but it can also create instability for schools and those they serve.
Worse, what responsibilities fall to the charter school and which ones fall to the state education system are not always clear. In Waimea’s case, it is unclear whether they can purchase their own liability insurance, or if they can use their fiscal reserves to offset the settlement. It’s not even certain if they should have been in the room when the settlement was reached. Right now, the school faces the risk that the $75,000 could be forced to come out of its annual operating budget.
Sione Thompson, the Charter School Commission’s executive director, recognizes the serious threat this poses to independent but publicly funded schools. “One settlement could bankrupt a school and possibly put them in a financial situation where they don’t make payroll,” Thompson says. “We need to ensure that we have some kind of methodology to not bankrupt schools.” Waimea’s governing board says it’s “prepared to seek all administrative, legal, legislative, and social remedies available.”
Waimea’s example illustrates some of the challenges students, families, and policymakers face as they try to create and navigate a public education system with separate and not always well-defined “traditional school” and “public charter” tracks. Meanwhile, the benefits of charter schools remain in doubt. A 2019 federal report found that, overall, charter school independence has not led to improved academic outcomes for schoolchildren. And, as we see here, charter independence certainly can complicate a school’s liability risk.—Martin Levine