Hawaii Could Be First School District to Lose “Race to the Top” Grant After U.S. DOE Puts State on “High Risk Status”

Graphic by Emily Metcalf
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Graphic by Emily Metcalf

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Hawaii could be the first state to ever lose a federal “Race to the Top” grant for unsatisfactory performance.

That was the word from the U.S. Department of Education this week, after placing Hawaii on a “high risk status.”


The U.S. DOE originally awarded Hawaii a four-year $75 million grant in 2010 to “accelerate education reforms aimed at improving teacher quality, closing the achievement gap and increasing student performance.” But now the federal agency is threatening to take the money away because Hawaii has not met the conditions of the grant.

Hawaii, which is the only state with a single statewide school district, and is the nation’s 10th largest school district, was one of 11 states to win the race to the top contest.

Hawaii is in its second year of the grant, but the U.S. DOE said Hawaii is already a year behind in implementing the four- year reform plan.

Stephen Schatz, Hawaii’s assistant superintendent for strategic reform who is overseeing the Race to the Top effort, told Hawaii Reporter the DOE is still making progress, but he acknowledged “it hasn’t been at the pace we originally expected.”

“Of late, we have accelerated our trajectory. We are working with the U.S. DOE to get specificity about what it will take to get out of this status,” Schatz said.

Despite the U.S. DOE letter that places Hawaii on high-risk status, it’s important to note “some significant gains to date,” Schatz said.

“Hawaii was a leader in adopting rigorous common standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and a career. The new standards will provide the basis for instruction and assessment at all grade levels, and ensure our students are academically competitive worldwide. 
A new college- and career-ready diploma is now in place, which calls for higher graduation standards,” Schatz said.

He adds: “In 2011, Hawaii was the only state that demonstrated statistically significant improvement in both reading and mathematics at both the fourth and eighth grades, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 
The Data for School Improvement (DSI) system was introduced in all traditional public schools (2010-11 school year) offering teachers, administrators and support staff new technology to monitor student progress, identify effective strategies and inform policy decisions.”

Hawaii’s DOE is committing $6 million over the next three years for early childhood education subsidies as a part of its Race to the Top initiatives, Schatz said.

As a result, he said about 800 additional Hawaii children in low-income areas will attend a high-quality preschool funded with State General Funds.

“Transformation in our Race to the Top initiatives remains a high priority. We will continue to work closely with the U.S. DOE to address these important issues. We understand that we all need to step up to the challenge, and work toward improving our educational system to benefit all of Hawaii’s children,” Schatz said.

On Thursday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie spoke with U.S. Education Secretary Duncan about the high-risk status.

Donalyn Dela Cruz, spokesperson for Abercrombie, said the U.S. Secretary told the governor of the agency’s support to ensure that Hawaii succeeds. The Governor also met with the state Superintendent.

After reading the letter from the U.S. DOE, the governor said the implications of letter that describe where the Race to the Top grant application has fallen short are “disturbing.”

“I am willing to do everything that’s necessary to proceed with Race to the Top and am calling on the responsible parties to immediately address the areas that need resolution,” Abercrombie said.

Much of the problem implementing the reforms have come from the teachers union, the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which is unhappy with contract negotiations with the state. The governor implemented the “last best and final offer” over the summer. The union appealed to the State Labor Relations Board, and hearings are ongoing. More than 80 witnesses were called to testify by the union, and just about half have testified.

Abercrombie said he will specifically ask the Labor Relations Board to expedite its process to bring its discussions to a timely conclusion and make a request to the Legislature for any necessary support.

He also will ask the Superintendent, the Board of Education and those working on Race to the Top “to address the changes that the U.S. DOE has noted,” Abercrombie said.

“Everyone’s obligation is to the children of Hawaii. It is clear on what actions need to take place and it is time to get this done now,” the governor added.

More on the web: Link to U.S. DOE website – HI Amendment Letter 12.21.11





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