Published Online: September 14, 2010
Published in Print: September 15, 2010, as N.J. Clings to Education Agenda Despite Race to Top Loss

N.J. Clings to Agenda Despite Race to Top Loss

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, and now-fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, shown at an event prior to the school chief's dismissal, later traded conflicting versions of what went wrong in the state's losing bid for $400 million in Race to the Top funds.
—Mel Evans/AP

Even as New Jersey staggers through the wreckage from its failed Race to the Top application, Gov. Chris Christie and state lawmakers are vowing to press ahead with an ambitious education agenda that reflects some of the key priorities in the state's losing bid for federal funds.

Some of the proposals put forward legislatively and administratively, such as measures to support charter schools and improve struggling school districts, explicitly mirror the goals of the state's unsuccessful $400 million proposal for a share of the $4 billion in economic-stimulus money.

Other measures under consideration, such as bipartisan legislation to increase school choice, have been named as priorities by the Republican governor, who was elected 10 months ago after campaigning on a pledge to support vouchers, expansion of charter schools, and merit pay for teachers.

Leaders in several other losing states in the federal competition have also promised to stay committed to the visions laid out in their Race to the Top applications. But whether New Jersey leaders can put aside the recent acrimony over their unsuccessful proposal remains to be seen.

The state's application was submitted with a crucial, and potentially fatal, error, prompting a furor that culminated with Mr. Christie firing his handpicked education commissioner and conflicting accusations about what went wrong. New Jersey's bleak financial picture could also complicate future proposals on schools.

"We intend to move forward with education reform this fall," Mr. Christie said on Aug. 25, the day after learning that the state had lost in the competition. If state lawmakers "are committed to these reforms, and it wasn’t just about the money," he said of Race to the Top, "then it shouldn't set us back at all."

New Jersey's Race to the Top application called for creating a new system to evaluate and reward teachers based on student achievement; overhauling the state's data system to better track student achievement; and providing more support to turn around struggling schools, among other strategies.

Legislation introduced by Democrats in the New Jersey General Assembly would allow Rutgers University, a public state institution, to become a charter school authorizer. Currently, the state is the only authorizer, which charter school advocates say undermines the state's ability to support charters and monitor their quality.

Even though the state's application emphasized creating charter schools in struggling school districts, state officials recognize that "we don't have the capacity" to promote charters' growth and oversight, said state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee and is sponsoring the bill.

Some charter school backers and lawmakers want to allow more universities and organizations to serve as authorizers, and Ms. Ruiz said her proposal is likely to change during the state’s ongoing legislative session. The senator said she has worked with the state’s department of education to craft the bill. New Jersey currently has 73 charters either in operation or scheduled to open, according to the education department.

"You can't have a level playing field for charter schools if the state is the only authorizer," said Shelley E. Skinner, a board member of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. "It becomes extremely political when the state is the only entity involved."

While she generally supports the legislation, Ms. Skinner would like to see other universities also allowed to serve as authorizers. Overall, the political environment in the state legislature and around the country has become much more favorable for charters, thanks in large part to the Race to the Top competition encouraging them, said Ms. Skinner, who served as an education adviser on Mr. Christie's transition team after he won last year's governor's race.

School Choice Expansion?

Another legislative proposal promotes one of Gov. Christie's priorities: expanding school choice. The "Opportunity Scholarship Act," sponsored by state Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr., a Republican, and Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a Democrat, would create a $360 million program to provide tax credits to corporations to award students in low-performing schools with private school scholarships.

Earlier this year, the governor voiced support for the measure, saying it would allow "thousands and thousands of children to pursue educational choice." The governor will continue to support the legislation as long as its original intent is not watered down, a spokesman, Kevin Roberts, affirmed this week.

Derrell Bradford, the executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, or E3, a Newark-based organization, and a supporter of the measure, said he was optimistic about its chances because of the governor's backing of the concept.

The state's Race to the Top application also called for overhauling the state's data system to allow for more precise measures of student achievement and judging teachers' impact on student performance. Gov. Christie's administration and legislators need to make that a priority, even without the $400 million federal award, Mr. Bradford said.

"There are a lot of legislative leaders who seemed pretty upset we didn't get the money," he said. "We hope that means they approve of the reforms in the application."

New Jersey has struggled with huge deficits in recent years, and its budget, including federal stimulus funds, fell from $32 billion in fiscal 2010 to $29 billion in fiscal 2011. But Sen. Kean said lawmakers in both parties this year seem committed to pursuing major changes in education, not just debating spending.

"We're having conversations about policies—not just money," Sen. Kean said. The controversy over Race to the Top is "in the rear-view mirror," he said, and lawmakers are looking at the application and weighing "how do we really get this done and meet those priorities?"

Still Smarting

New Jersey's loss in the Race to the Top competition became national news shortly after the awards were announced on Aug. 24, when it was revealed that the state had made a critical error on one section of its application. When asked to describe state spending on education, New Jersey officials included the wrong budget years, costing the state 5 points out of a possible 500. The state finished 3 points behind Ohio, which ranked 10th in the competition and was the last state to receive funding in the second round of the competition.

Gov. Christie initially castigated the Obama administration for being unwilling to overlook what he called a "clerical error," and said his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, had alerted federal reviewers to the error during an in-person interview and provided the correct information.

But shortly afterward, the U.S. Department of Education released a videotape of the interview showing that Mr. Schundler's team had not been able to produce the correct numbers. A day later, the governor fired Mr. Schundler, saying the education official had misled him. Mr. Schundler, while taking responsibility for the mistake, countered that he was truthful about events and had specifically warned Gov. Christie that the state had not provided the correct information.

The governor's actions have also drawn the ire of the New Jersey Education Association, which has feuded with Mr. Christie. The teachers’ union had reached an agreement with Mr. Schundler on merit pay in an earlier version of the state’s application, only to see the governor scuttle the arrangement.

The furor continues. Democratic lawmakers held a Sept. 7 hearing on the application mistake and have called for the governor to apologize to the Obama administration for his criticism, a demand that Mr. Christie has dismissed as political theater. Meanwhile, New Jersey Attorney General Paula T. Dow, an appointee of the governor, is reviewing the performance of a company hired to consult the state on its application, Wireless Generation Inc. of New York. GOP lawmakers have supported that review.

The governor has since appointed the state's assistant commissioner for the division of school effectiveness and choice, Rochelle Hendricks, as acting commissioner while he conducts a national search for a full-time replacement. Ms. Hendricks told the state’s board of education last week that she would support the ideas in the state's Race to the Top application, including the establishment of specialized academies within academically struggling and economically disadvantaged school districts. The application describes academies as schools that would be led by teachers or principals and promote academic innovation.

Ms. Ruiz, who criticized the governor for the application error, said Mr. Christie and the legislature need to cooperate in promoting the Race to the Top blueprint.

"The public deserves a full accounting" for the mistake, Ms. Ruiz said, but "we can't use that as an excuse to stop. We have to keep moving forward."

Vol. 30, Issue 03, Pages 21,24-25

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