A proposal to overhaul Hawaii's charter school system will go a long way to fixing known problems, but it lacks a key component that could dramatically improve accountability, national experts say.
Charter schools, although publicly funded, operate independently under charters with the state.
"When our organization did an evaluation of the Charter School Administrative Office, we saw them spending a significant amount of time on the personnel matters of charter school employees because they were state employees," said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
"That's a highly unusual arrangement that charter school employees must be state employees," he said. "It actually undercuts the charter school concept of increased autonomy and accountability. You're taking away autonomy and creating administrative headaches. That's a big issue, and I would suggest you take a look at that."
Richmond said he doesn't know of any other state that classifies charter school employees as state employees. Some allow the staff and faculty to remain state employees in schools that convert from traditional public schools into charter schools.
The original purpose for charters was to serve as laboratories for educational innovation, said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. Nathan helped write the nation's first charter school law.
A healthy balance of autonomy and accountability are the keys to creating the ideal environment for that kind of ingenuity, he said.
Richmond pointed out that Hawaii's charter system has an imbalance between those two concepts.
"Your charter schools have really good autonomy here except in the most important area: staffing," he told Civil Beat. "For autonomy to really count, the principal needs to be able to determine how you pay, evaluate and schedule your employees."
While the current proposal would significantly improve Hawaii's overall score on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' ranking of state laws, said advocacy director Lisa Grover, the state's scores on legal and fiscal autonomy and collective bargaining wouldn't be much better.
Until recently, Hawaii's charter school teachers had a separate boilerplate union contract from the one other Hawaii State Teachers Association members use, said Joan Husted, former executive director of the union. It was less restrictive, and each charter school could negotiate a supplemental agreement with the details like vacation time and work week hours.
At some point, though, the union decided to place those teachers under the same collective bargaining agreement that the state's 12,500 traditional public school teachers operate under.
The master collective bargaining agreement is not practical for most charter schools' needs, said Husted. And although each charter school still has the option to negotiate a supplemental (separate) agreement, most principals and governing boards are too busy to parse out the details, she pointed out.
The Legislature's proposed rewrite of the law leaves in place the provision that charter school employees shall be state employees. Tokuda said at the briefing that she appreciates the advice from the national experts and has no doubt there will be changes to the bill as it goes through "the sausage-making process we call the legislative session."