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Education Funding

Ed. Dept. Takes Action Against Hawaii for Race to Top Stumbles

By Michele McNeil — December 22, 2011 5 min read
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Hawaii is in danger of losing its $75 million Race to the Top grant after the U.S. Department of Education notified state officials yesterday that the state has not made “adequate progress” in fulfilling the promises it made as part of last year’s $4 billion competition.

In a Dec. 21 letter to state officials, the department said it was placing the state on “high-risk status,” limiting access to its remaining grant money, rejecting several requests for significant changes and delays in its Race to the Top plan, and planning an extensive on-site review in early 2012. And, in a more overarching statement that puts the fate of Hawaii’s $75 million grant in question, the department said it is “concerned” that Hawaii can’t fulfill the commitments it made to win the grant.

While the department has certainly put states on warning before regarding other grants, those warnings have usually surrounded issues like cash management—not “unsatisfactory performance”. Consider this the department’s first official warning shot to the 12 Race to the Top winners, which are in the throes of implementing President’s Obama signature education-reform initiative. These 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, shared a $4 billion prize funded by the 2009 congressional economic-stimulus package after pitching what outside judges determined were the boldest plans for improving their respective K-12 systems.

So far, implementation has been slow in a number of states, plagued by delays and plan adjustments. But Hawaii has perhaps experienced the biggest implementation problems, as chronicled in this recent Education Week story. Hawaii did not secure a crucial collective-bargaining agreement with the state teachers’ union to implement its teacher-evaluation pilot program, which set off a chain reaction of other delays. These delays have prompted a couple of education policy experts to publicly call for the Education Department to revoke Hawaii’s grant.

Indeed, according to yesterday’s letter, the state has asked to change all projects in its Race to the Top plan—usually by delaying their implementation. From the federal department’s perspective, Hawaii has not demonstrated “adequate progress” in implementing its proposals, according to the letter, signed by Ann Whalen, the director of policy and program implementation. “The Department is concerned about the State’s ability to fulfill its commitments within the grant period,” the letter states. “In addition, the Department has determined that the scope and breadth of the amendments submitted by the state may constitute a significant change in the state’s approved plans.”

In an interview last night with Education Week, Hawaii Superintendent of Education Kathryn Matayoshi acknowledges delays and missed milestones, but also added that within the last few months—as senior staff members at the department have come on board to help implement the state’s plan—the trajectory and pace have improved. Within the last month, she said, state officials have begun informal meetings with the teachers’ union to begin to hash out Race to the Top issues. She said the state remains committed to its plan.

“We were hopeful that significant progress [within the last few months] would take us off the radar screen, but apparently that was not the case,” Matayoshi said. “We know that transformation work is hard. ... We want everyone now to step up to this challenge. We need to run a little faster and push a little harder.”

Matayoshi said she also wants more clarification from the department as to why certain proposed changes were rejected, and what exactly the state needs to do to get off “high-risk” status.

Although the federal department approved more than a dozen delays in Hawaii’s plans, it also rejected several requests for changes to new prekindergarten programs, teacher induction and mentoring, and a new leadership program for its turnaround schools. Department officials also let the state know how significant it is that officials there failed to secure a collective bargaining agreement with the Hawaii State Teachers Association. “It is our understanding that without a revised contract, the State cannot fully implement many initiatives in its approved Race to the Top plans,” the letter says. From the department’s perspective, the state doesn’t have the “proper authority"—either in law, regulation, or contract—to even carry out its plan.

As part of being a “high-risk” grantee, Hawaii will now only be able to get its remaining grant funds (just over $71 million) on a reimbursement basis, essentially having to ask permission first. (This high-risk designation is an official status that can apply to any Education Department grant, and triggers various ramifications.) The department will also conduct a more extensive on-site review, on an unspecified date, in which Hawaii officials will be expected to provide “clear and compelling evidence that it has made substantial progress.” And, the state must submit extensive monthly reports about that progress.

The Education Department has promised to hold all Race to the Top winners to their promises while giving them wiggle room to implement significant policy changes in a short, four-year time period. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he’s prepared to take money away from any state not worthy of its award.

It’s unclear whether Hawaii will be able to do enough, and quickly enough, to satisfy the department. This “high risk” designation could eventually lead to a more severe consequence—which could involve the department forcing Hawaii to give its remaining award money back. To that end, the state has not spent most of its award —only $3.8 million of the $75 million had been drawn down as of Dec. 16.

It’s pretty rare for the department to revoke a grant. But it’s been done before, most recently when the department made California give back a $6 million data-systems grant. And, there’s never been such a high-profile, top-dollar contest like Race to the Top before.

Depending on how far this enforcement action goes, pulling Race to the Top money from the Aloha State could prove politically problematic. One of the state’s senators—U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat—serves as the chairman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees spending for all federal programs, including Race to the Top. The program has already faced criticism on Capitol Hill, including from House Republicans, who tried to eliminate it entirely and recently bragged in a press release about cutting Race to the Top by 20 percent.

If the department pulls a prestigious grant from Inouye’s home state, will he continue to fight for Race to the Top’s fiscal future? It’s an open question.

There are implications for other Race to the Top states as well. If the department is putting Hawaii on notice, could other states also be in trouble? New York, for example, is in a court battle over its teacher-evaluation regulations. And Florida is racking up a long list of sometimes-lengthy delays. Just how much will the department tolerate?