Attacks Fly in New Jersey for Losing Out on $400 Million Education Grant
Money brings out the worst in a pack of rats.
By Sharon Otterman
It was, according to New Jersey's governor, a $400 million mistake.
The state was drenched in recriminations on Wednesday as Gov. Chris Christie said a clerical error by a midlevel official had caused the state to lose out on $400 million in federal school reform money -- an error that caused its Race to the Top grant application to fall short of the 10-member winnerĂ˘€™s circle by just three points.
The mistake, reported Tuesday by The Star-Ledger of Newark, resulted from a failure to correctly read a straight-forward question worth not quite 5 of the competitionĂ˘€™s 500 points. The application asked states vying for billions in federal funds to compare their 2008 and 2009 school budgets to illustrate their commitment to education financing. Instead, a New Jersey official, whom the governor would not identify, compared the stateĂ˘€™s 2010 and 2011 financing, thus forfeiting the points.
Not so fast, the state's largest teachers union responded. The real problem was the governor's failure to secure support from a large number of school districts -- which cost more points than the clerical error and was cited specifically by some judges as a weakness.
In a lengthy news conference on Wednesday, Governor Christie, a Republican, said he took ultimate responsibility for the error, which "believe me," he said, "I am not thrilled about." But he said no one would be fired over the matter, then he assumed his signature anti-Washington tone. The Obama administration, he said, should have called, or checked the state's Web site, when it discovered the error, which was on just one page of a 1,000-page application.
"That's the stuff that drives people nuts about government, and that's what the Obama administration should answer for," he said. Ă˘€śWhen the president comes back to New Jersey, he is going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he is depriving them of $400 million that this application earned them, because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldnĂ˘€™t pick up the phone and ask a question."
It was an ignominious end to a process that had already been marred by broken agreements and name-calling between the state government and New Jersey's most powerful teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association, which Mr. Christie regularly criticizes as an intractable barrier to progress on school reform.
After the state's failure to reach the finals of the first round of the federal competition under the leadership of Gov. Jon S. Corzine, Mr. Christie's commissioner of education, Bret Schundler, hammered out a draft agreement with the union in the days before the second round application was due. He and the union said they thought that would increase the state's chances.
But Mr. Christie, deciding the compromise had severely weakened the state's ability to carry out measures derided by the union -- like establishing merit pay for individual teachers, using student test scores as a primary measure of a teacher's performance and making it tougher for teachers to get tenure -- rejected the agreement announced on May 27.
That left the state with little more than the Memorial Day weekend to complete a new version of the application, which was due that Tuesday. In the end, only one person was assigned to review the checklist for the 700-page appendix to the grant application, Mr. Christie said Wednesday. In the future, with an application of such magnitude, two people will be assigned to the task, he said.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the federal Education Department, said no state had been allowed to change its application after the June 1 deadline, in the interest of fairness.
Mr. Christie cited only the clerical error in explaining the state's loss, but a look at the score sheet, released on Wednesday, showed that the state lost more points in other areas of its application, in part because it got only 59 percent of its 645 school districts to agree to carry out Race to the Top reforms, and only 1 percent of its unions. In New York, which was among the winners, all districts signed on.
Barbara Keshishian, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, said the state's loss was a direct result of Mr. Christie's misguided decision "to reject the collaboration required by the U.S. Department of Education."
New Jersey lost 14 points for the union's lack of support, by Mr. Christie's own accounting, and 16 points for its failure to make as much progress on statewide student and teacher data systems as other states. Even in the area with Mr. Christie's most aggressive changes, in educator certification and evaluation, the state came up 14 points short.
But because the clerical mistake appeared to be a stunning error, not policy, it ended up at center stage. The Assembly Appropriations Committee announced it would hold an inquiry into how the mistake happened.
"Anyone that has been involved in a grant application process knows that there are rules involved," the Assembly speaker, Sheila Y. Oliver, said. "We don't do that in our own state, allow special dispensation for people who made a mistake when applying. If in our own process there are no do-overs, how can we want one from Washington?"
New York Times
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