There is strong evidence of important decolonization work being done in the Native Hawaiian charter school movement, as it rebuilds cultural identity and reaffirms the social and political sources of political sovereignty of the Hawaiian people (Goodyear-Ka’opua). The culturally grounded place-based approach to learning facilitates the foundational development of social and cultural connections. These connections provide a basis for alternative understandings of legitimate and useful knowledge, and the possibility of learning to value authentic and emancipatory education. However, that work exists in tension with the constraints of NCLB/ESSA and the kinds of knowledge privileged in a neoliberal political formation.
While there are about twenty other non-Native Hawaiian charter schools, in Hawai‘i, none of them have been particularly well funded or supported by philanthropic organizations in any kind of institutionalized way. Following the monies spent by the Castle Foundation and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, on the contrary, reveals a very different logic. In Hawai‘i, the vast preponderance of the philanthropic monies are dedicated to “Public Education Redesign and Enhancement,” i.e. replacing Hawai‘i’s teaching and administrative leadership. Framing the ‘problem’ with language that seems to focus on social equality issues, the leaders of these private organizations position themselves as players in the neoliberal game to create ‘equal educational opportunities’:
"...in Hawai‘i, as in the rest of the nation, public schools do not serve all students equally. Children in wealthy neighborhoods attend schools with more resources and higher-performing peers than children in less wealthy neighborhoods. Children of different ethnic backgrounds fare differently, with widely varying achievement scores and graduation rates. This means that students' opportunities vary greatly depending on their race and socioeconomic status. In a nation founded on the principle that all are created equal, we need a system of public education that raises all students to the same high standards, not a system that deepens existing inequalities" (Castle Foundation, italics added).
The means or methods identified by these foundations to “achieving equality and closing the ‘achievement gap’ between students of different backgrounds” has been to create a political and educational system that supports all students' achievement through “policy reforms, transformational leadership, fiscal transparency, high expectations, and data-driven planning, curriculum, and instruction” (CF). Castle Foundation, in particular, identified its particular niche in helping to eliminate the achievement and preparation gaps as that of “building school and community leadership” through their investments in public education. Their financial interest in this area of ‘public education reform’ intensified dramatically from 2010-2013, reflected in the growth from the $366,750.00 spent in 2010 to the $1,082,340.50 spent in 2012, a period which marked by great economic uncertainty, increased income disparities in Hawai‘i, and a dramatic rise in homelessness and joblessness.
The seemingly innocuous objective of “building school and community leadership” actually meant that Castle Foundation, just in 2012, awarded $10,000.00 to Grantmakers for Education (private consulting firm) for an unsolicited grant to collect, catalog and report on grants for Race to the Top initiatives; $750,000.00 to The New Teacher Center (mainland consulting company) for building the foundation for a Hawai‘i New Teacher Induction Network (teacher mentoring); $77,000.00 to Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools (HAIS – network of private schools) for planning and design of the HAIS Institute for 21st Century Teaching & Learning and for support for charter school leaders to attend the High Tech High Graduate School of Education Leadership Certificate Program; $75,000.00 to the Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF) for partial support to build the Hawai‘i Department of Education's capacity for strategic and effective communications regarding Race to the Top reforms; $25,000.00 to the State of Hawai‘i Department of Education (HIDOE) to “support rulemaking assistance for the creation of an alternative certification program for principals”; $30,000.00 awarded to the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association (HSTA) for Multimedia Teacher Growth Portfolios (for teacher evaluation); $55,000 awarded to the State of Hawai‘i Department of Education's Kailua-Kalaheo Complex Area for integrated complex area-wide training in instructional leadership that results in major improvements in student achievement (student scores on high stakes standardized tests); $150,000.00 awarded to the University of Hawai‘i Foundation for implementation of the Hawai‘i P-3 Demonstration Project model in Windward Oahu to achieve literacy by grade three (Hawai‘i P-20 initiative); and $750,000.00 awarded to Teach for America Hawai‘i to “recruit outstanding teachers to close the achievement gap in Hawai‘i's public schools” (“Harold K.L. Castle Foundation”).
All of these funds are dedicated to fulfilling Race to the Top neoliberal educational objectives. Yet even among these, there is a clear focus, from a critical perspective, on initiatives designed to lower labor costs by de- professionalizing both classroom educators and educational administrators and to weaken the public schools further. Private and privatized schools, which have already been deeply institutionalized and are supported politically by the social and economic elite in Hawai‘i, will become the only viable option for those parents seeking a meaningful education for their children.
This type of support for neoliberal reform efforts, focused on ‘educational leadership’ in schools, cannot simply be attributed to the nature of the Race to the Top grant requirements, but rather, reflected a longer-term strategy specific to the neoliberal elite in Hawai‘i. In 2004, when the Hawai‘i State Legislature passed Act 51 to “support the reinvention of public education statewide,” the Hawai‘i DOE Superintendent, the Hawaiian Educational Council and the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation collaborated to create the Hawai‘i Change Leaders Project (HCLP). This project, funded largely by the Castle Foundation, drew inspiration from and partnered with the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (CLG), which received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to “pioneer new approaches to developing educators’ skills as change leaders” (CLG). Due to the “policy opportunities afforded by Act 51, and the momentum and enthusiasm created by the DOE and HEC,” the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation funded a six year program under HCLP at 120 schools focusing on “core competencies of change leadership” and “changes in local policy and management practice to support change leadership” (CF, italics added).
The Hawai‘i Change Leadership Group then morphed into Academy 21, a non-profit consulting company working on the premise that “Schools, Colleges of Education and [Public] Accountability Systems are Obsolete” (“Academy 21 Overview”). The key focus areas in 2009 were the development of evaluations of existing teachers and administrators and the provision of alternative routes for teacher and administrator certification. This non-profit organization merged with current HIDOE Principal Leadership Academy (PLA) in 2009, presumably maintaining a common purpose. The PLA has become the professional development arm for the Hawai‘i Change Leadership Project to “help school leaders transform their competencies, cultures and conditions” (Castle Foundation).
Effectiveness, according to the neoliberal logic, requires numerical measurement, and the Castle Foundation also invested in exploration and adaption of the Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED), assessment which “utilizes a multi-rater, evidence-based approach to measure the effectiveness of school leadership behaviors known to influence teacher performance and student learning” (CF). The VAL-ED ostensibly measures core components, “characteristics of schools that support the learning of students and enhance the ability of teachers to teach,” and key processes, or the means by which “leaders create those core components” (Ibid). This attentiveness, on the part of private philanthropies, to the need for neoliberal “change leadership” in educational reform at the state, district and school level, bespeaks an urge to “reform from above” (Ibid).
In all of the private philanthropic literature, there is a shared expressed belief that social inequality can be ameliorated with heightened attention to public schools, the putative institutional source of inequality, with student scores on high stakes standardized tests providing clear measurement of the “efficacy of change leadership” (CF). The onus is on the teachers and administrators, who are identified as the human agents who are seen as reproducing and reinforcing those social inequalities through rigid and outmoded approaches to teaching and school leadership, to effect the change that will allow for social equality to occur.