by The Associated Press
13 November – Honolulu (AP) -- U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday said Hawaii faces a steep road to qualify for up to $75 million in federal aid because of the state-imposed teacher furloughs.
The 10 percent reduction in Hawaii's school days this academic year is mind-boggling, Duncan said during a telephone news conference.
"I don't know anyone who can make a case that eliminating 10 percent of your school days is good for the children of Hawaii," he said.
Moreover, Hawaii faces "a heck of a challenge" to make a compelling case that it qualifies for between $20 million to $75 million in federal "Race to the Top" competitive grants next year, he said.
The grants would be used for innovative learning approaches such as charter schools or judging teachers based on student test scores. Applications are due in January and the first round of grants go out in April.
Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the state Board of Education, agreed with Duncan.
"One key criteria of the Race to the Top program calls on states to make education funding a priority," Toguchi said in a statement. "Clearly, that has not been the case in Hawaii."
Toguchi pointed out that the state Department of Education's $1.8 billion budget has been slashed by nearly $500 million over two years.
But the criteria for the grants doesn't include the number of instructional days offered students, said Kathryn Matayoshi, the department's deputy superintendent.
"We hope our state application will be judged on its merits, not on headlines," she said in a statement.
The state's substantial budget shortfall prompted Gov. Linda Lingle earlier this year to cut allocations to the Department of Education.
During labor contract negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the department and the state Board of Education agreed to furloughs as the best way to cope with the reduced allocations. The new pact, which Lingle agreed to, cut 17 days from the 180-day school year.
The furloughs, however, have since raised a storm of controversy among parents and led to the filing of two federal lawsuits in an effort to halt them. A federal judge on Monday refused to grant a preliminary injunction to block the furloughs, though.
Hawaii has received about $105 million in federal economic stimulus funds and will get another $52 million by the end of this year, Duncan said.
The Race to the Top grants are additional dollars the states can win. The total amount of money available is $5 billion.
Fewer than half the states are likely to win money, and several already have rewritten education laws and cut deals with unions to boost their chances.
"States have been doing some things to get in the ballpark," Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. "Now states have to think about how they win. We're going to reward excellence here.”