Hawaii took a big step closer yesterday to securing $75 million in federal Race to the Top dollars for big education reforms aimed at turning around low-performing schools and better preparing students for college or careers.
The state was selected as one of 19 finalists, out of 35 states and the District of Columbia, vying for $3.4 billion in federal Race to the Top grants. Local education officials say Hawaii has a good chance of coming out a winner.
The U.S. Department of Education will announce in September which states will get grants.
Only Tennessee ($500 million) and Delaware ($100 million) got money when the first round of Race to the Top grants were made in March. Hawaii placed 22nd of 40 states and D.C.
Yesterday, Education Week dubbed Hawaii a "surprise pick" for the finalists’ pool in round two.
But Hawaii education officials say this time around they are on better footing: Teacher furloughs are over; legislative revisions have been made to allow for the creation of more charter schools and better oversight; new programs to turn around struggling schools are under way; and Hawaii is implementing common national standards to guide learning goals.
"There’s no doubt that we’re competing against some very aggressive" applications, said Robert Campbell, director of federal compliance for the state Department of Education. He added, "Comparatively, we stack up in the criteria. I think we will be in a position to actually get the funds."
Here is how the state proposes to spend its requested $75 million in federal Race to the Top grant money through 2014:
Source: State Department of Education
Ten to 15 states will get grants in the second round, the U.S. Department of Education has said.
Race to the Top, funded with federal recovery dollars, is a nationwide effort aimed at rewarding innovative efforts to improve student achievement.
"I am very hopeful" Hawaii will win, schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said yesterday. But, she added, "it’s going to be a tough road."
For the next part of the competition, Matayoshi and other DOE administrators will travel to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 10. They will speak to a panel of experts in hopes of persuading them that the state’s plan for improving schools is doable – and that Hawaii can live up to its reform pledges.
Matayoshi said that in their presentation, she and others will explain Hawaii’s unique statewide school system and give the panel a "Hawaiian lesson" on concepts like ohana and kuleana.
She also said she doesn’t plan to gloss over teacher furloughs, which drew the ire of parents and sharp criticism from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The furloughs cut 17 instructional days from the 2009-2010 school year, leaving Hawaii with just 163 classroom days, the shortest school calendar in the nation. Teacher furloughs on instructional days were averted for the upcoming school year with $57 million from the hurricane relief fund and a $10 million, interest-free line of credit from local banks.
"We had a bad situation," Matayoshi said. "We’re not going to ignore it."
The DOE, in its pitch to the Race to the Top panel, also will point to improvements in data systems that help teachers better track student performance, and will highlight recent reforms to Hawaii’s charter schools laws.
In its application for the second round of Race to the Top, Hawaii outlined specific plans for reforming schools, including creating "zones of school innovation" to improve student achievement at struggling campuses.
As part of that plan, two schools – Waianae and Nanakuli high schools, among the lowest-performing in the state – are moving this year toward the national New Tech Network model, which stresses project-based learning and provides a laptop for every student.
The program is getting off the ground with funding and other help from Kamehameha Schools and other community groups.
Education advocates say they believe new education reform efforts, such as those happening on the Leeward Coast, give Hawaii a good shot at winning.
"I think the Obama administration must have recognized our efforts to end the furloughs," said Marguerite Higa, of Save Our Schools. "Now we’ll have to see if people can commit and we can get the cooperation of everybody involved."
Ann Davis, director of Hawaii Education Matters, said Hawaii went from an "underdog" in the competition to a finalist. "We’re headed in the right direction in terms of reform," she said.
Gov. Linda Lingle said whether or not Hawaii wins, "we are committed to implementing the initiatives detailed in our application plan."
In a statement, Lingle also said the application goals are "achievable, and the strategies for meeting these goals will give our schools the tools and resources to help students be successful in the classroom while preparing them for their future careers."
Race to the Top has faced some criticism, with critics arguing it undervalues some measures of school success and is too much of a one-size-fits-all approach to education.
In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Duncan said Race to the Top is about advancing "education reform," including national learning standards.
"The children are the big winners here," he said.
He added that the in-person presentations by finalists will be about determining "states’ capacity to deliver against their plan."