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Hawaii Hangs on To Race to the Top Grant, For Now

Hawaii will get to hold on to its Race to the Top grant—for now.  But it remains on high-risk status, according to a letter released today by the U.S. Department of Education.

"Hawaii has taken important steps in the right direction to address setbacks in their Race to the Top work over the last year," said Ann Whalen, the department's director of policy and program implementation in a statement. "The Department recognizes that Hawaii's State and local leaders are very passionate and have demonstrated a strong commitment to this work despite the challenges. We urge them to continue their work and hope to see their plan gain significant ground in the weeks and months ahead."

Department officials visited Hawaii in March to take a look at the state's progress in delivering on the big promises it made in its winning Race to the Top application. They decided the state had made enough preliminary progress that it can hold onto the funds. But department officials will conduct another review in five to six months to re-evaluate their decision. Meanwhile, the department has approved a revised budget and "scope-of-work" (key milestones, including deadlines, that must be hit to fully implement the plan) for Hawaii's plan. 

Hawaii's biggest struggle? Putting in place an ambitious, new state-wide teacher evaluation system. Unlike in other states, Hawaii's evaluation system isn't in law or regulations. The state board recently voted unanimously to adopt it. But it still needs to gain approval from the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which voted in January to reject the plan.

Less than a day before the department made its announcement, the union took the unusual step of calling for a revote on the contract.

In the meantime, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat, has tried, and failed to go around the HSTA. Legislation that would have made the system a reality failed to gain approval in the state legislature.

Hawaii's teacher evaluation system isn't the only reason it's fallen behind, said a department official.

The department's decision is likely to have ramifications far beyond the Aloha State. Hawaii was largely seen as test case of whether the department is serious about holding state's feet to the fire on the big promises they made in their Race to the Top applications. Although Hawaii has struggled the most, it's far from the only state that has fallen behind.

One key group of folks who are watching? Republicans in Congress who last year sought to eliminate Race to the Top entirely—most GOP lawmakers (and some Democrats) just aren't fans of the Obama administration's K-12 competitive grant programs, in general. Will the decision to let Hawaii keep its grant (even conditionally) give them more ammunition against the program? Time will tell.

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