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Feds chide Hawaii over education reform; warn funding at ‘high risk’



WASHINGTON >> An U.S. Education Department official on Wednesday admonished Hawaii for its "unsatisfactory" performance under a $75 million federal grant the state won last year in a high profile competition and said it was placing it under "high risk" status. That means the state is in danger of losing the money if it doesn’t make improvements.

This is the first time the department has placed under such a status a state that won dollars distributed in the competition known as "Race to the Top." The contest is a signature education initiative under the Obama administration, which has used it to encourage states to enact changes it supports.

Hawaii was one of 11 states and the District of Columbia to win more than $4 billion in Race to the Top grants last year. The Hawaii Department of Education is the nation’s 10th largest school system and the only statewide district in the country. 

The education community has been watching closely to see how aggressively the department will enforce the terms of the competition. 

Hawaii still has about $72 million of its four-year, $75 million grant left to spend. The state has been well over a year behind in implementing many aspects of its plan to improve low-performing schools, and has struggled to roll out a teacher evaluation system tied to teacher performance that it promised.

"The department is concerned about the state’s ability to fulfill its commitments within the grant period," Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie was told in a letter dated Wednesday and signed by Education Department official Ann Whalen.

Because the state is now a high-risk grantee, it will be required to get pre-approval before funds are spent and will be subjected to a thorough on-site review, the letter said.   

"Please note that failure to comply with the high-risk conditions may constitute a material failure to comply with the requirements of the grant," the letter said.

Abercrombie said he found the implications of the letter "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," he said in an emailed statement late Wednesday.


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