After failing at its first bid for federal Race to the Top funds, Hawaii has placed among 19 finalists with its second application for one of the coveted education grants.

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top program is an Obama administration effort to incentivize education reforms nationwide. Gov. Linda Lingle, the Hawaii State Board of Education and a number of other partners will learn in September if the state has won the $75 million it seeks with an application education department officials believe is more clear and specific than the state’s first bid.

A five-person panel will travel to D.C. in two weeks to explain and make a case for the application before the U.S. Department of Education. There’s only enough money for 12 states to come out winners.

“Whether or not Hawaii receives Race to the Top funds, we are committed to implementing the initiatives detailed in our application plan,” Lingle said in a news release.

The state is under pressure to reform its schools from a number of quarters. Student achievement in Hawaii lags based on national assessments. “Furlough Fridays” prompted widespread public anger over the situation. Three former governors have formed an organization urging greater accountability. The Race to the Top program has given educators and political leaders something to rally around, to focus their efforts on a clear goal that carries with it something they say they don’t have enough of — money.

The Hawaii Department of Education issued a press release Tuesday outlining its five-point plan:

  1. Tying high-quality college- and career-ready standards and assessments to a statewide curriculum
  2. Improving longitudinal data collection and use
  3. Cultivating, rewarding, and leveraging effective teaching and leading
  4. Providing targeted support to struggling schools and students
  5. Aligning organizational functions to support reform outcomes

“To me, Race to the Top is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do the things that we know we need to do and we know will be painful to do, and to both blame and thank Washington for doing them,” said Terry George, executive director and vice president of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to building resources for Hawaii’s future.

The 19 finalists (18 states and the District of Columbia) were chosen from a pool of 36 applicants because their submissions reflected “the boldest plans” for education reform, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his announcement Tuesday. This is the second application Hawaii has submitted to gain a slice of the reform aid. (Nearly $3.4 billion remains in the fund after the first round of grants.)


The state’s application for Phase I grants earned 365 out of a possible 500 total points — 35 points shy of the necessary 400 to become a finalist. Its second bid is faring better probably because of three primary improvements on the first application, said Bob Campbell, executive assistant for school reform at the Hawaii Department of Education. (Campbell’s current position was created in conjunction with this latest Race to the Top application.)

Campbell said Hawaii’s Phase II application:

  1. Is more clear about the department’s existing data systems and how it plans to use them.
  2. Has more detailed plans for ensuring equitable distribution of teachers and principals.
  3. Demonstrates Hawaii’s commitment to raising caps on the number of charter schools and making them more accountable.

“Those three things alone would have given us what appears to be 40 or so additional points this time around,” Campbell said. “They at least got us an invitation to Washington.”

The Hawaii Legislature‘s passage of a bill increasing the state’s cap on charter schools contributed to strengthening the application. Having more time to develop ideas didn’t hurt either, Campbell said.

“The second application had a lot more implementation details and was more specific,” he explained. “I would imagine that also garnered us more points.”

But George of the Castle Foundation said Hawaii’s detailed plan to track students’ progress throughout their school careers is probably one of its greatest assets. The state right now can’t track long-term progress of a single student.


One hallmark requirement of states in the grant competition is demonstration of broad-based support among community leaders. Hawaii is one of the few states that has the support of its teachers union for its proposed reforms. While Hawaii formed its bid for Phase II, George’s foundation sent him to volunteer with the education department for a month and lend his services garnering letters of support. Hawaii’s second application included letters from all three of the main gubernatorial candidates committing their continued support for Race to the Top reforms if they are elected.

“It was very significant,” George said. “We found both the desire for change and the excitement about the structure of Hawaii’s Race to the Top strategy were strong across the board.”

“Hawaii’s Race to the Top plan maps out a strong foundational framework for targeted and systemic education reforms,” said interim Superintendent Katherine Matayoshi, according to the department’s press release. “Our schools and educators will work with our education partners to accelerate growth in student learning and achievement.”

Education board Chairman Garrett Toguchi called the application’s proposed reforms “clear and bold” and commended all who participated for their collaboration on creating “a strong blueprint to streamline operations.”

Read an executive summary of the state’s application here

Read the full application here.

We will also be perusing the state’s more than 900 pages in appendices over the coming weeks so we can share with you what Hawaii’s application is all about and what it will mean for our schools.

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