As schools of choice, startup charter schools must attract students to survive.
They depend largely on per-pupil money from the state, and without enough enrollment to cover their overhead, they risk going out of business.
"If you look at charter schools across the country, on average 10 percent of charters are revoked each year," said Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Education Committee. "Why? It's because they are meant to be experiments. There are going to be some successes and some failures.
"You know how many charters have been revoked in Hawaii since the charter school law was passed more than 10 years ago?" he asked. "Zero. If we were in line with the rest of the country, it might be two or three or one every year, whether for fiscal concerns, academics, whatever."
One big reason that charters — even tiny ones — continue to survive and even thrive in Hawaii despite what many consider inadequate state funding is the hefty support they receive from Kamehameha Schools. The organization believes that to reach most Hawaiian students it must work through the public schools, and charter schools are a favored avenue. As public schools, charters cannot charge tuition, so they rely on state and federal funding as well as grants and private donations.
Kamehameha helps fund 17 of the state's 31 charter schools, those with Hawaiian-focused curricula and a largely Hawaiian student body. It provides $1,500 per pupil a year and is even more generous to small schools. Since 2008, Kamehameha has provided base-line funding of $150,000 annually for each campus, even if enrollment falls well below 100 students. For the smallest school, that works out to $4,000 a student, not far from the $5,560 the state provided in per-pupil funding for each charter school this year. Kamehameha also provides other help, including training for teachers and school leaders, instructional support and research.
Six Hawaii charter schools are so small — fewer than 100 students each — that they would be targeted for closure if they were traditional public schools. To save money, the Board of Education shut down Wailupe Valley in June 2009 and merged its 75 students into a neighboring school. Liliu-okalani School will close for good this month because the board concluded that it costs too much to run a campus for just 98 students.
The only charter school that has come close to shutting down is Waters of Life on the Big Island, which doesn't qualify for help from Kamehameha Schools. The Charter School Review Panel voted to revoke its charter in 2009 because it wasn't financially viable, but the school sued and prevailed because rules for revocation had not yet been approved.
A new director has helped turn things around after years of fiscal mismanagement. Still, the Mountain View school ran out of money in April 2010 and had to close early for the summer. Math scores on last year's Hawaii State Assessment were dismal, with just 5 percent of students proficient, while 36 percent met reading standards. Enrollment has dropped to 89 students, the vast majority of them economically disadvantaged. In December the panel considered revoking its charter again but instead kept it on probation and is monitoring it closely.
The other five charters with tiny enrollments are all Hawaiian-focused: Halau Ku Mana with 66 students in Makiki; Ke Ana Laahana with 73 students in Hilo; Hakipuu Learning Center with 67 in Kaneohe; and two schools in Kekaha, Kauai, that cater to Niihau Hawaiians and enroll 37 students and 43 students apiece.
"Being a small school certainly has its challenges, but it certainly has its strengths," Kalei Kailihiwa, director of Hoolako Like, the Kamehameha Schools department that supports charter schools. "If a school adheres to its mission and vision, if they're able to function, then more power to them."
Test scores for the smallest schools that Kamehameha supports are well below average for Hawaii's charter schools, with only one campus out of the five showing more than 17 percent proficient in math, for example, compared with 40 percent for charters as a whole. The small campuses, however, are working with a challenging population, including more students who are economically disadvantaged and in special education.
"We have students who come to us that are four or five years below grade level," Hoe said, "so you're not going to catch up with that in two or three years."
The one school that beat the averages, Kula Aupuni Niihau a Kahelelani Aloha, reported that 79 percent of students tested last year were proficient in math, the highest of all the charters in the state. That was a huge jump from the 19 percent proficient in 2009 and 4 percent proficient in 2008. The bilingual school has just 43 students, so statistics are more likely to vary widely year to year. Its teachers are all highly qualified, according to Administrator Hedy Sullivan, including the math teacher, who is her husband.
Kamehameha reports strong family support of its Hawaiian-focused campuses, with surveys showing that 9 out of 10 parents are involved and satisfied and that students feel connected to their teachers. Parental support is a key component in student success in any school. Charter schools come by that naturally because families vote with their feet by choosing to enroll their children in these alternative campuses.
"I really believe in the potential of charter schools to bring community and parents together around the child's learning," said Ann Botticelli, a board member of Hookakoo Corp., the local school board for three conversion charter schools that are supported by Kamehameha Schools.
"There are parents in both private and public schools that engage themselves, but when you sign up at a charter school, there's an expectation that you will be involved," said Botticelli, whose son attended a charter school. "The difference is that charter schools pull parents into it."