DOE stays in the race


POSTED: Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hawaii's chances of receiving “;Race to the Top”; money from the federal government are hobbled by the continuing Furlough Fridays, but the state Department of Education deserves credit for staying in the intense competition aimed at overhauling low-performing schools.

Ten other states dropped out of the contest for a share of the $4.35 billion before Tuesday's application deadline, some cowed by the level of reform demanded or resisting the feds' prodding to support charter schools and link student achievement with teachers' pay.

Hawaii plodded along, even after a scolding by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan indicated that furloughing teachers could doom its chances of benefiting from a stimulus program designed to enhance the public school experience.

While chagrined by the furloughs and astute enough to recognize that Duncan's public criticism was a blow (even though the grant's rules don't specify minimum class time), the woman leading the DOE's effort also never lost sight of the fact that Hawaii holds certain advantages over other states vying for the money.

Kathryn Matayoshi, who is now interim schools superintendent, is realistic about Hawaii's chances in the first round (winners will be announced in April), but insists that the state's prospects should rise substantially in June's second round—especially if the furloughs that have idled students for so many Fridays end this semester.

After all, problems that caused other states to drop out of the competition are non-issues in Hawaii. And Hawaii matches or exceeds its 40 competitors (39 states and the District of Columbia) in critical areas, such as adopting international academic standards and allowing students to transfer to schools out of their neighborhood.

Some states dropped out because they were unable to coordinate support for the grant application among diverse school districts, or because their teachers' unions objected to reforms that would affect pay and working conditions. But cooperation was a given in Hawaii, with its single statewide school district, and the unions representing public school principals and teachers attached letters supporting Hawaii's request for $78 million.

U.S. Congressman Neil Abercrombie, who if he succeeds in his quest for Hawaii's governorship would be a key player in implementing the reforms mandated under “;Race to the Top,”; urged Duncan to endorse Hawaii's application and to look beyond the furloughs occurring as the state copes with a serious budget shortfall.

If federal education officials judged the application solely on its own merit, Hawaii should have an excellent chance. But Duncan will have a difficult time favoring Hawaii over states that, facing their own financial crises, managed to keep students in school full time.

The probable funding fallout from Furlough Fridays serves to remind once again that the more class time Hawaii's students miss, the worse they are likely to suffer.