History of Charter Schools in Hawai'i

A Decade of Students Embracing the Joys of Learning

The first charter school in the  United States opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1991. There are currently 3,617 charter schools in 40 states and Washington DC. Ninety new charter schools are scheduled to open throughout the country next school year. Over one million students attend charter schools (1,074,809) with diverse organizational structures, philosophies, and programs.



Hawai‘i’s first 25 charter schools were authorized through Act 272 of the 1994 legislative session. The law created an opportunity for existing department of education schools to convert to “student centered” schools. Wai‘alae Elementary School became the first in 1995 and Lanikai Elementary School followed in 1996. Frustrated by the slow pace to convert, the 1998 Hawai‘i legislature passed amendments to the charter school law requiring the Department of Education through its board and superintendent to provide information and technical assistance necessary to support the establishment and expansion of student centered schools. In 1999 the Hawai‘i legislature again amended the charter law through Act 62 to allow new start-up charter schools and changed their designation from "student-centered" to "New Century" schools.


Wai‘alae and Lanikai were automatically designated with charter school status. At least 40 groups frantically worked to gain approval for one of the 23 remaining charters. Connections’ school-within-a-school was the first to meet the state’s new requirements for New Century Charter Schools. Their charter was approved by the state Board of Education on April 20, 2000. On May 5, 2000 Governor Benjamin Cayetano, Board of Education Chairperson Mitsugi Nakashima, and Superintendent Paul LeMahieu issued five charter certificates to Wai‘alae, Lanikai, Connections, West Hawai‘i Explorations Academy, and Kanu o ka 'Aina.



The legislative session of 2001 was very difficult for charter schools in Hawai‘i. During the first half of the session, charter school supporters successfully lobbied against what they felt were anti-charter school bills, including one that would have established a "sunset" provision, eliminating all charter schools by 2005. Hawai‘i’s charter school advocates faced the stark realization that the struggle for adequate funding and support would be arduous. 



On January 10, 2002, Connections Public Charter School filed a lawsuit against 21 state officials, including the entire state school board, and auditor Marion Higa.  Voyager Public Charter School on Oahu soon followed with their own lawsuit arguing that they received less state money than other public schools.  State school board chairman, Herbert Watanabe, said that the difference in the money paid to charter schools this year opposed to last year, a 30 percent reduction, is because of a legislative act and not a policy change by his board.  "The law was changed by the Legislature," he said. 


About 50 bills related to charter schools were introduced in the 2002 Legislature. The proposals represented the diverse and somewhat conflicting feelings state officials held for charter schools, and included everything from phasing out the reform movement to providing more money for them.  Some bills would have increased the number of charter schools in the state, while others would have prevented more from opening.



In February 2002, Hawai'i's charter schools were struggling.  Bill Woerner, director of West Hawai'i Explorations Academy in Kailua, Kona, said that his campus had received no state allocation for the school year.  The school, which was nationally recognized for its project-based curricula, was operating solely from federal start-up money it received the past two years and a National Science Foundation grant.  "I'm not an alarmist, but I am getting concerned," Woerner said. "We were very conservative last year with our money and still have the federal startup funding. We can make it for another year and then we'll be bankrupt. Some of the schools will be bankrupt before the end of the year." 


Nina Buchanan, education professor and director of the University of Hawai'i Charter School Resource Center, said that unless laws change, the only charter schools that could survive would be the Hawaiian immersion programs that are able to tap into an additional source of federal money set aside for indigenous groups.  "We're all dying out here in the field," Buchanan said. "It's not possible to run a school on $2,900 a year. Even in the most carefully managed environment, we can't stay in business more than two years, not without significant federal funds or funds from elsewhere." 

State Senator Norman Sakamoto, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said that there was no clear understanding of how much charter schools should receive per pupil.  He said that the Legislature would look at the method the auditor used to determine per pupil money, as well as issues such as what happens when a charter school fails. "In the event of a default, what happens?" Sakamoto said. "To what extent are the taxpayers standing in line behind them to take responsibility on things like rent?