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In Race to the Top, Hawaii Finally Shakes 'High-Risk' Label

A year and a half after the U.S. Department of Education threatened to take back millions of dollars in grant money, Hawaii has finally gotten rid of the "high-risk" label from its Race to the Top grant.

The Education Department "recognizes and commends Hawaii's efforts to accelerate the progress of its Race to the Top plan," reads a July 29 letter from the Education Department's Ann Whalen, who oversees Race to the Top implementation. Hawaii "is executing projects consistent with the amended timelines and has demonstrated that it was able to meet critical milestones in the last six months in a way they were unable to prior to December 2011."

The Aloha State has come a long way since the Education Department bestowed that black mark on its grant in December 2011 over the state's failure to secure a teachers' contract that would pave the way for a new evaluation system. That was a key promise the state made to land its $75 million grant in 2010 during a furious competition among most states.

Practically speaking, this means Hawaii no longer endures more-intensive reporting requirements, and is no longer in danger of losing its money. On another level, this is a confidence builder as the state finishes implementing its education-improvement ideas.

"This is great news that validates the good work that's been done by the teachers, educational leaders and our community partners," said state Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi. "The transformation of our public schools is in full swing. We are staying the course in our mission to ensure all students graduate from our public schools prepared for college and careers."

Getting out of the federal doghouse has been a gradual process. In March 2012, federal officials gave them a bit of breathing room by taking them off cost-reimbursement status (in which the state had to ask for permission to spend virtually every penny). In February, the department reinstated Hawaii's good standing for part of its grant, but problem areas remained.

Until April, that is, when that long-sought teachers' contract was finally reached.

And now, almost all of its Race to the Top work is done, even as other states continue to struggle. There were big questions when outside judges picked Hawaii to win Race to the Top, and as the state struggled those concerns seemed valid. But now it remains to be seen if Hawaii—the dark horse in the whole competition—will turn out to be one that finishes at or near the top after all.

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