Charter School Applicants Call for Federal Investigation of Hawaii DOE
by Laura Brown, October 18, 2006
Three charter school start-ups applying for $150,000 each in seed grant money have called for a state and federal investigation of Hawaii's state Department of Education (DOE).
The DOE announced on Friday, Oct. 13, the three winners of federal awards that would be used to set up charter schools. The federal government provides the funds to increase school choice and quality education for students across the state.
After reviewing the awards, the three schools - Hauula Public Charter School, Hawaiian Renaissance Public Charter School of the Arts and the American Heritage Academy - filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General and Hawaii's Attorney General suspecting a misappropriation of funds.
School board members for Hauula Public Charter School, Renaissance Public Charter School of the Arts and the American Heritage Academy were assured theirs were the only proposals received by the Charter School Office before the publicly-announced deadline of August 18, 2006.
The word came from DOE Charter School Administrator Charles Higgins. But up to 10 more proposals were accepted after the deadline, leaving the only three that made the deadline to be rejected.
Higgins claims that additional applications were received the week following the deadline, which according to federal guidelines, should have made those applications ineligible for the award.
Higgins says awards were then based on the highest scores given from a sub-contractor, Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL). Applicants were required to submit a description of how the proposed charter school would "enable all students to achieve the state's educational content and performance standards," the need for the school and how the school will "improve public education in Hawaii."
However, the DOE and PREL ignored proposals to serve hundreds of military dependents and children in rural and failing school districts and instead awarded grants to:
* A San Diego on-line high school tutoring program based on California standards,
* A struggling 10-year-old DOE Hawaiian immersion program at Kapaa Middle School that reports zero English and Math proficiency for Limited English Proficient students,
* A Big Island private, for-profit Waldorf school with a curriculum based on "spiritual science" and the "philosophy of freedom."
One Board of Education member who oversees public charter schools for the board, attempted to get to the bottom of the controversy and requested to review all of the proposals submitted so he could review the applications and scores.
So far BOE member Paul Vierling's requests have been ignored by the DOE school superintendent Pat Hamamoto and Higgins.
Vierling requested to review the documents at the Board of Education. But he says instead, he was met by Superintendent Pat Hamamoto and Board Chair Randall Yee, who told him that the documents were not yet available, because PREL reviewer names had to be redacted.
Rejection letters had already been sent out; therefore, proposals should have been available to the public, Vierling says.
Charter school applicants are also asking why just three awards were made when there are millions more dollars in federal funds already appropriated to charter school start-ups not being used. According to a Consolidated Federal Funds report for Hawaii, the state received over $14.5 million in federal funds for its Hawaii Charter School program between 1997 to 2004.
The DOE Charter School Office reports $2.8 million in federal funds remaining out of a $6 million grant for start-up or public school conversions to charter schools.
These funds are scheduled to lapse in 2008.
The DOE's award of planning grants to ineligible applicants means it is likely that, during the next step of the chartering process, the board will not award charters to fill the 3 available slots for the 2007 school year.
As a result, the expansion of the charter school movement and school choice would be further stifled. These charter school board members say they are concerned the DOE charter school board deliberately awarded charters to schools that were likely to fail and thereby weaken the charter school movement's success as a whole.
The charter school advocates have had a rocky relationship with the DOE and BOE. The charter school applicants note:
* The DOE failed to follow its own guidelines as announced under the grant award process;
* The DOE awarded federal funds to the least viable candidates who did not meet the specified requirements
* This follows recent attempts by the BOE to destroy the growing charter school movement in Hawaii, including the unwarranted firing of the Charter Schools Administrative Office Executive Director Jim Shon and a recent attempt to cut the charter school budget by $19 million.
* Past complaints by charter schools against the DOE include unequal funding, overcharging for employee benefits and payroll services, as well as the withholding of federal special education and other federal funds.
* A review of DOE financial records revealed a 2003 state allocation notice of $10 million in federal impact aid to charter schools, but charter school representatives claim their schools never received those funds.
Charter school start-ups are also asking about local oversight once the grants have been awarded. In other words, who makes sure the groups given funds actually start charter schools? Who tracks how the money is spent.
For instance, a planning grant given to former BOE Chair Deborah Hartmann is considered "expended" even though no status report or return of funds has ever been provided, said Higgins.
In his department's defense, Higgins explains that "once a check is cut, the federal government considers those federal funds expended. That way, the funds won't lapse."
In their request for an investigation, Charter school applicants note controversy over PREL's management of DOE grants in the past.
In 2001, then DOE School Superintendent and PREL Board Member Paul LeMahieu resigned from both positions after a joint House-Senate investigation revealed he had funneled $600,000 of a $2.3 million federally-funded contract awarded by the DOE to PREL to his mistress. A hula dancer, the grant money started her up as a mental health care provider.
Laura Brown is the interim chair of American Heritage Academy, which submitted a proposal to provide school choice to hundreds of Hawaii's 15,000 military dependents. The proposal is based on the highly-successful Belle Chasse Academy in Louisiana. The model is currently being replicated across the U.S. to provide consistency and quality curriculum to military students.