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DOE, unions must unite to win

If things work as they should, Hawaii’s own "Race to the Top" should start looking like a stampede.

The national competition for federal stimulus money reserved for education projects is entering its second round, and the state Department of Education deserves kudos for stepping up its game. Hawaii is one of 19 finalists — a vast improvement since Round 1 in March, when the state ranked 22nd in a list of 41 entries for grants. Ultimately only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, won.

Finishing in the money this time will take a more concerted effort. Only 10 to 15 out of 35 states and the District of Columbia will be chosen to share the $3.4 billion in Race funds. Success will require support from school board leaders and rank-and-file teachers and principals.

In its revised proposal, the DOE lays out a five-point plan it hopes to fund through a $75 million award. As in Race to the Top efforts nationwide, the focus is on turning around low-performing schools. The DOE has launched new programs in two of them to demonstrate its willingness to throw out the old playbook.

Nanakuli and Waianae high schools are making the transition to more project-oriented learning, equipping every child with a laptop computer. This investment includes resources from Kamehameha Schools. State educators surely are happy to promote this effort as part of an ongoing partnership with the private institution, especially in communities with large Hawaiian populations. The feds give points not only for ambitious goals but also the demonstrated capacity to achieve them — and partnering is one sure way to boost that capacity in this fiscally strained era.

Other steps taken should bolster Hawaii’s case, including the creation of "innovation zones" for schools and the push for tougher diploma criteria and common national standards to guide learning goals for all students.

But when the DOE makes its formal pitch in Washington Aug. 10, officials will have more explaining to do.

Without a doubt, Hawaii has to overcome the recent black eye of collective-bargaining unrest, which culminated in the year of furlough Fridays that stripped instructional days from the school calendar. To her credit, Kathryn Matayoshi, the interim superintendent, has stated pointedly that she will not try to skirt the issue.

But Matayoshi can’t be pitching without her team behind her. She will need to emphasize the commitment by the teachers’ and principals’ unions to enbrace another key Race to the Top goal: developing "great teachers and leaders," which includes more accountability from teachers and principals for student performance. The application alludes to that commitment, but given the well-publicized rancor during negotiations and the ultimate misstep of school closures, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and Hawaii Government Employees Association need to step up with their own statements of strong support. This is no time for the usual bureaucratic inertia that blocks real progress.

One of the strengths of our unified school district is its potential to more easily replicate the successes of innovation statewide. But it only works if all the players, including elected leaders and private partners, are lined up as well.

Hawaii’s school system has weaknesses, which this critically needed grant could help to address. But it also has strengths, and the next few weeks should show if our educational leaders can capitalize on them.


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