A bill that would overhaul Hawaii's charter school system is headed to conference committee after approval by the House, despite strong resistance to a provision that would exempt such schools from the state Ethics Code.
Rep. Sharon Har called the exemption a "poison pill" that flew in the face of recommendations from the state auditor, who recently blasted the charter school system for a lack of oversight and "unethical and illegal" spending and employment practices on some campuses.
Har (D, Makakilo-Kapolei) joined 10 others in voting against Senate Bill 2115 on Tuesday. Another 15 House members supported it, but with reservations. The House has 51 members.
House Education Chairman Roy Takumi assured his colleagues during the vote that there was no sinister intent behind the provision and that it will be removed. "The intent when we go to conference is to take that section out," said Takumi (D, Pearl City-Pacific Palisades).
Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Tantalus-Makiki), vice chairwoman of the education committee, shepherded the bill through the House, and the exemption was added as it emerged from her committee. She noted that it mirrored exemptions charter schools already enjoy from the state procurement code and the Sunshine Law.
The provision would require a new Charter School Commission to develop and enforce its own ethics policies and procedures covering gifts, confidential information, fair treatment and contracts.
But that proposal didn't sit well with many legislators or even charter system officials.
"We've heard recently numerous instances of charter schools going rogue and some of their leaders and staff kind of stepping over the line, so to speak, and I think that having this language in here sends a very bad signal to people out there who are very concerned about how our charter schools are doing," said Rep. K. Mark Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City), who backed the bill with reservations.
The chairman and three former chairmen of the Charter School Review Panel also strongly oppose the provision, submitting a letter Tuesday to leaders of the education committees.
"If you exempt charter schools from the State Ethics Code, the public's concerns about and even mistrust of Hawaii's charter school system will be reinforced," Panel Chairman John Colson and former chairmen Alvin Parker, Ruth Tschumy and Carl Takamura wrote in a letter Tuesday to legislators. "This bill is our chance to bring enhanced credibility to Hawaii's charter school system, ensuring that all charter schools play by the rules and continue to provide an excellent and innovative education for their children."