Monday | December 18, 2017
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Charter schools sign first performance contract

The state’s first performance contract with public charter schools will give the schools’ governing commission the authority to do more than threaten to revoke a school’s charter, the commission’s executive director said this week.

“Generally speaking, with the charter movement nationwide, they talk about the charter bargain,” Tom Hutton said. “You get more autonomy in how you operate your school. The trade off was, you have more accountability.”

Hawaii, he said, has been good about offering charter schools autonomy, but has fallen short in requiring accountability. The Legislature last year effectively “rebooted” the charter school system, including governance, with Act 130. That bill replaced the Charter School Administration Office with the Charter School Commission and required performance contracts with each of the state’s 32 public charter schools.

As of Monday, all 32 schools had signed the first performance contract. Hutton said the commission and schools are still awaiting more direction from the Department of Education on academic standards, so this first contract focuses more on financial and organizational issues.

On the organizational end, the contract “put into one place a reminder about laws schools are already supposed to be complying with,” Hutton said.

On the financial end, school officials expressed concerns that, because their budgets are so lean, their schools would look like fiscal failures, Hutton said. That’s not how the financial accountability component will work, he said.

“We’re flagging data where we need to have a conversation,” he said. That gives schools a chance to explain the situation, he added.

In the past, the Charter School Administration Office attempted, unsuccessfully, to revoke a few school charters.

And without a performance contract, the charter school commission could ask a school to improve math scores, for example, but had little authority to ask how a school would do so, Hutton said.

With the new contract, the commission will be able to review test scores, for example, and press schools for an action plan, as well as monitor whether the plan is being followed.

The commission won’t be telling schools how to address problems, though, he added.

To help ease schools’ concerns about the new contracts, Hutton said the commission offered not to revoke any school’s charter during this first year for failing to comply with the agreement.

He said a “silent majority” of schools had no problem with the new contract.

Other schools said they felt like the contracts introduced the same kind of red tape and bureaucracy they wanted to avoid by converting to or opening a charter school.

“You have some charter schools that are outstanding and amazing and you have some that are cause for concern,” Hutton said. “This is setting up a framework to help things improve.”

Chris Hecht, executive director of Kona Pacific Charter School, said the process by which the contract was created went smoothly, and he’s looking forward to operating under the contract. The commission worked collaboratively with the schools, he said.

“We’re 100 percent ready to step up and be held accountable,” Hecht said. “We like the clarity the performance contract brings.”

Hecht sees an advantage to having the performance contract in place.

“Accountability is a two-way street,” he said, adding people often focus on holding schools accountable for educating students. But the state has duties to the schools, too, he said, noting per-pupil funding to public charter schools has been cut by at least 35 percent the last three years, and forecasts show the funding amount is likely to continue decreasing the next two school years. “We look forward to holding the state accountable for providing adequate resources. It’s a first step.”

Messages left with several other Hawaii Island public charter schools were not returned, or the schools’ principals or directors were not in the office Wednesday and Friday.