HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Each year, the University Laboratory School in Manoa admits less than 60 new students, earning a reputation for being one of the toughest public schools to get into.
But now, the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission says a legal opinion by the Attorney General's office has determined that the school's admissions policy is legally flawed.
"They are targeting a certain number of seats for students based on their ethnic background on their income level or their attempt to achieve a 50-50 gender balance," said Tom Hutton, the commission's executive director.
"A charter school cannot limit admissions based on race, gender or income."
But school officials say the policy is on firm legal ground.
The lab school, whose history dates back about a century, is one Hawaii's smaller K-12 public schools. It used to be a part of the University of Hawaii but later became a charter school about 12 years ago.
For admissions, it uses a blind lottery but gives weight to students' ethnic backgrounds, their family income levels and their parents' educational history.
The aim is attract a student body that mirrors the demographics of the Hawaii's general population.
The school says those demographic factors are included because the Lab School serves as a test bed for curriculum research and development by the UH.
Keoni Jeremiah, the school's principal, said similar admissions policies have been upheld by federal appellate courts.
He said overturning the admissions policy will mean that future enrollment will be decided by a random lottery and will skew the UH's research goals.
"Not knowing the breakdowns of our demographics would be very challenging for the research," he said.
For now, the commission is allowing the school to operate under its current admissions policy, on the condition that the state Legislature approves a bill granting the school an exception.
That bill, SB 1348, was approved by the Senate Ways and Means Committee today and now goes to the full Senate before heading to the House.
"We wanted to make sure that schools like the Lab School are allowed to continue operating," said State Sen. Jill Tokuda, Ways and Means chair.
Tokuda said the AG's opinion is based on an interpretation of the Hawaii Charter School Law, which she helped spearhead several years ago.
“I do know what the legislative intent was when we passed those particular measures,” she said.
“It was never to discourage innovation. It was never intended to make these type of enrollment policies inactive.”