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Federal funds are starting point for education overhaul


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POSTED: Sunday, April 05, 2009

For state officials, an infusion of federal funds for education is about the near-term need for money to keep Hawaii's public schools going through a time of critical revenue shortage.

For federal officials and the Obama administration, it's also about the long term and an aggressive agenda for reforms in public education.

That's why the U.S. Department of Education has tied a substantial portion of $100 billion in stimulus funds to a requirement that states come up with information on student performance, teacher quality and other issues that go beyond what's called for under the No Child Left Behind law.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the first goal of the funds is to “;save hundred of thousands of teaching jobs”; that could be lost as school districts across the country struggle to make payroll because of the economic downturn. The intersecting and more far-reaching objective is to lay the groundwork for an overhaul of the nation's failing schools.

However, to even consider that matter, Gov. Linda Lingle, the state Department of Education and the school board — and eventually the Legislature — will first have to get past an argument about how and when to allocate the $157 million Hawaii is set to receive.

Lingle wants to use $90.9 million to cover a reduction in the current school budget. That will leave only $22 million for fiscal 2010 and 2011, but Linda Smith, Lingle's aide, said the governor believes that with more cuts in education spending and a larger appropriation from general funds as the state's economy improves, the budget will balance.

School officials and the Board of Education are less bullish about future revenue collections. They are even more worried that the governor's plan for distribution could jeopardize the state's chances of getting more federal dollars in coming years. However, a review of federal guidelines indicates Lingle's tactic will likely be in compliance.

Duncan has said he will “;come down like a ton of bricks”; and withhold a second round of funds from states that do not meet the data requirements. These include teacher quality and evaluation systems, students' scores on state tests compared to national tests to show whether state standards are rigorous enough, restructuring programs for regular and charter schools that have failed under NCLB and graduation rates and a count of students who go on to earn college credits.

States must also set up data systems to track student performance, an expensive undertaking. Smith said Lingle is “;committed”; to using the $35 million in federal education funds she is allowed to spend at her discretion to pay for the data collection.

Duncan puts a premium on the information. It is a starting point for making changes in the nation's education system. “;Simply investing in the status quo isn't going to get us where we need to go,”; he said.

Hawaii would do well to start thinking about where its schools need to go, too.