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Update on New Jersey Race to Top Drama: Commissioner Fired

By Sean Cavanagh — August 27, 2010 3 min read
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UPDATE: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has fired State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler over the explanation the state gave for the costly mistake on its Race to the Top application.

The governor had initially defended his state’s application in forceful terms, partly based on his understanding that the state’s team had been aware of the mistake and had tried to alert federal reviewers to it. (See a fuller explanation below.) But a videotape of the state’s interview with federal application reviewers seemed to contradict that.

New Jersey’s error cost the state five points on the 500-point application for up to $400 million of the federal grant money, a loss that appeared to prove crucial, since the state was narrowly beaten out by Ohio as the last state to receive funding.

In a statement released today, the governor suggested that he had been misled about what took place in the interview with federal reviewers.

“I was extremely disappointed to learn that the videotape of the Race to the Top presentation was not consistent with the information provided to me by the New Jersey Department of Education and which I then conveyed to the people of New Jersey,” he said. “As a result, I ordered an end to Bret Schundler’s service as New Jersey’s education commissioner and as a member of my administration.

“As I have said before, I never promised the people of New Jersey that this would be a mistake-free administration. However, I did promise that the people serving in my administration would be held accountable for their actions. As I said on Wednesday, I am accountable for what occurs in my administration. I regret this mistake was made and will do all I can to have my administration avoid them in the future.”

ORIGINAL POST: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said that his state took the necessary, reasonable—and timely—steps to fix a goof in the state’s Race to the Top application that may have cost the state a $400 million grant.

But documents and video have emerged that appear to call into question that claim. A state teachers’ union has pointed to an earlier version of the application that did not include the critical blunder, and to a video of New Jersey’s in-person interview with federal reviewers, in which they were asked about to explain the application error and could not.

The New Jersey Star Ledger, which has been leading the coverage of the issue, reports that it obtained paperwork from the New Jersey Education Association showing that the Christie administration had altered the erroneous budget figures in question, after the union had approved an earlier version of the application. The union has been locked in a running feud with the governor, who earlier in the process had rejected a compromise brokered between the state’s department of education and the teachers’ group on merit pay. After taking that step, Christie’s team revised the application before it was submitted for the competition.

The application error, which cost New Jersey five critical points on the 500-point scale—potentially enough to put it in the winner’s circle—centered on one page of the state’s proposal, in which which it was asked to provide funding totals in fiscal years 2008 and 2009. The state mistakenly described how school funding would increase in fiscal 2011.

Earlier this week, Christie blasted the Obama adminstration for allowing the reviewers to dock the state those points. He also claimed that during New Jersey officials’ interview with federal reviewers, the state team “gave them the ’08 and ’09 numbers,” and said “the ‘08-'09 comparison supports us getting the full number of points under that. This is the stuff, candidly, that drives people crazy about government and crazy about Washington.”

But a video clip of that interview shows that it was federal reviewers who asked about the missing information. The U.S. Department of Education released the video in response to the “high level of interest,” in the New Jersey’s application, a spokesman said. (See the Star Ledger’s story, linked above, for the clip.)

During the interview, state officials initially responded that they did not know where the missing numbers were. The reviewers offered to let them look for the figures, and later in the interview, asked state officials again if the correct numbers were in the application.

“No, no,” a state official responds, shaking her head.

As I noted in a story this week, New Jersey wasn’t the only state to foul up an application. In round one of the competition, Hawaii left out a 25-point section of its application. The state corrected that gaffe in the second round, and is walking away $75 million richer because of it.

New Jersey wasn’t so lucky. Whose explanation of the state’s foul-up are you buying?