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Education Funding

Gaffe May Have Sunk N.J.'s Race to Top Bid

By Sean Cavanagh — August 26, 2010 2 min read
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In a Race to the Top application package that ran more than 1,000 pages, a single gaffe may have been New Jersey’s undoing.

An error on Page 261 of the PDF version of the application, on which state officials used the wrong years in describing funding levels for schools, cost the state 5 points in the competition, New Jersey officials acknowledged. The state had sought up to $400 million in the federal grant contest, and the loss of those points appears to have proved crucial: New Jersey scored 437.8 out of 500 possible points, just behind Ohio, which earned a score of 440.8 and was the 10th and final applicant that qualified for funding.

News of the mistake prompted a volley of accusations in the Garden State about who was to blame. Gov. Chris Christie, whose office submitted the application, said his administration took responsibility. The governor, a Republican, indicated that the goof was made by a state education department employee, but said it made no sense to single out a worker for discipline.

He instead denounced the application reviewers—and the Obama administration directly—for not being willing to overlook what he called a “clerical error” and seek the correct information from the state.

“If you are a normal, thinking, breathing human being, you pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, you sent this one wrong paper; can we get the information?’ ” Gov. Christie said. He said the application’s reviewers were flagged to the correct information two weeks before the final decision was made.

But New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, a Democrat, said the governor’s administration was to blame, and vowed to hold a hearing to examine why the mistake occurred.

The section of the application in question asked states to compare their spending on education in fiscal years 2008 and 2009. New Jersey, however, mistakenly responded by discussing proposed education spending increases for fiscal 2011, which resulted in the reviewers’ docking the points and noting the error.

Controversy dogged New Jersey’s Race to the Top application earlier in the process, when Gov. Christie rejected a compromise that Bret Schundler, his appointed education commissioner, had arranged with a state teachers’ union on tenure and merit pay. The governor, who has feuded with the union, called the arrangement a “contrived consensus,” and removed it from the final application.

New Jersey was not the only state to make a mistake on a Race to the Top proposal. In round one, Hawaii mistakenly omitted a section of its application on ensuring equitable distribution of teachers and principals, costing it 25 points, said Robert Campbell, the executive assistant for school reform for the state department of education.

For round two, Hawaii filled in the gap—and walked away a winner, with $75 million.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2010 edition of Education Week

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