HONOLULU - A week before most of Hawaii's students return to school, the state education department was cleared from its "high-risk" status that had threatened a $75 million grant targeted for reforming struggling schools.
Hawaii education officials said they were notified Monday by the U.S. Department of Education that the grant is now in good standing. In December 2011, the federal education department admonished Hawaii for unsatisfactory performance in delivering reforms that allowed Hawaii to be one of the states that won part of $4 billion in grants through "Race to the Top," a contest that's a signature education initiative under the Obama administration.
It was the first time the department placed one of those winning states under such a status, thrusting Hawaii into the national spotlight and putting pressure on state officials to show progress on promised reforms. But a bitter contract dispute with the teachers union led to challenges implementing various reforms, especially an educator evaluation system.
The pressure was especially felt by schools in Waianae and Nanakuli and in Kau, Keaau and Pahoa, which make up the zones the reforms are targeting. The zones are low-performing schools in the state's highest poverty areas that would have stood to suffer the most if the money was taken away.
"We just move forward, you can't dwell on that," said Mary Correa, the complex area superintendent for the Big Island zone. "It takes time for a plan to work."
Once a contract agreement was reached with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, education officials were able to move forward with a new evaluation system, which will be implemented statewide when teachers start the new school year. It will begin to be tied to compensation next school year.
"Even during our labor dispute with HSTA, we continued to pilot and develop our evaluation tools and processes," said Stephen Schatz, assistant superintendent of the Office of Strategic Reform. "We took on a really ambitious reform agenda, probably in a way that no other state can say they've done."
Hawaii wasn't seen as a worthy winner to begin with and education observers were paying attention to whether federal officials would make good on a threat to take money away.
"Hawaii hasn't historically been thought of as a reform state," and its plan seemed overly ambitious, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute. "It was a warning to other states not to mess around too much. It's an example that says if you behave and do what we ask, we'll let you out of detention early."
Hess said it ended up showing how Hawaii's singular education system - one statewide school district - can implement systematic reforms that are tougher for states made up of separate school districts.
"This will be used as an example of politics around teacher evaluations," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think-tank.
HSTA President Wil Okabe agrees that the evaluations will continue to keep Hawaii in the spotlight. "Anytime you tie compensation with evaluations, it becomes very contentious," he said. "Throughout the country it's like that. At least we have it in the contract that we'll be sitting down with the employer to ensure our rights are there."
Clearing Hawaii's status doesn't mean reforms are completed, said Ann Mahi, the complex area superintendent for the Waianae zone. "Our biggest effort now is to sustain the things that help children become college and career ready," she said. "It doesn't mean we're ending the race."
Schools have until September 2014 to carry out reforms. "Folks should be aware being off a high-risk status doesn't mean you're now doing everything you were supposed to do," Hess said.