An 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.
"It's really apparent from the letter that everyone involved in education in Hawaii is going to have to step up," Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said in a separate statement. "We acknowledge there's work to be done."
Stephen Schatz, Hawaii's assistant superintendent for strategic reform who is overseeing the Race to the Top effort, last week told The Associated Press that the state was making progress on reforms it promised, although he said there have been roadblocks.
Schatz said the state's ability to move forward has been slowed down by complications with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the union representing public school teachers across the islands.
The two sides had reached a conceptual agreement before Hawaii was announced as a winner to tie half of a teacher's evaluation to education gains made by students. But the union currently is embroiled in a prohibited practice complaint it lodged with the state labor relations board against the state. The union claims the state violated members' rights by implementing its "last, best and final" contract offer over the summer.
"We're still wholeheartedly committed to the reforms in the race. Whatever impediments that we may face we intend to get through them," Schatz said. "We're making progress on every project in our scope of work."
Abercrombie said he would ask the labor relations board to expedite its process. He also plans to appeal to the Legislature for support and ask the superintendent, Board of Education and those working on Race to the Top to address the changes noted by the Education Department.
"It is clear on what actions need to take place and it is time to get this done now," he said.
Union President Wil Okabe said Wednesday he's not surprised Hawaii has been placed on high risk status, but that state officials should have recognized the risk to the grant when imposing the contract offer on teachers.
"Once they implemented this thing, it had ramifications on everything," he said, adding that it's unfair to blame the union for the position the state is in.
The letter to Abercrombie comes as President Barack Obama attempts to leave for Hawaii for his family's annual Christmas vacation. The president's wife and daughters are already in Hawaii, but his travel plans are up in the air because Congress has been unable to reach agreement over extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits due to expire at the end of the year.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.