New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday made last-minute changes to the state’s application for a $400 million federal “Race to the Top” education grant, more closely tying teacher merit pay and evaluations to student achievement.
The new grant application also makes it easier to fire ineffective teachers, even ones with seniority — something expected to draw the ire of the state’s largest teachers union, which last week signed off on the application wording.
“We greeted the news with a mixture of deep disappointment, utter frustration, and total outrage,” NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said.
The New Jersey Education Association offered its support last week after meeting with Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who agreed to make some changes to how merit pay would work.
For instance, part of merit-based bonuses would have be given to schools so their staffs could vote on how to distribute it. The union prefers that approach to bonuses for educators whose students do well for several reasons, including that it would make the teachers collaborate instead of compete with one another.
Christie said that when he had the chance to review the recommendations Schundler made, he “rejected it.”
“I believe that merit pay has to go to individual teachers. I believe that if there are layoffs, that those layoffs should be based upon merit and not based upon seniority,” the governor said Tuesday.
“The application is not submitting the form as the teacher’s union would want, it’s submitting the form that the governor wants,” Christie said.
Race to the Top is the federal government’s major new project to change the way schools work. The majority of states applied for grants in the first round of funding, but when the awards were made earlier this year, only Delaware and Tennessee got them.
The grants are a centerpiece of the Christie administration’s educational reform plans.
If New Jersey received an additional $400 million, half of that would go directly to school districts, many of which are laying off teachers because their state aid is being reduced.
Christie and Schundler see the grant application as a major part of their agenda for changing schools. They want to allow merit pay — so teachers could be paid partly based on how well their students perform.
They also want to make it harder for teachers to get lifetime tenure, and to upgrade computer systems to do a better job of tracking how individual students progress.
The majority of school districts supported the application last week.
While the NJEA endorsement is not needed for the grant, it is seen as a way of making the plan’s implementation more successful. The NJEA opposition to the grant was one factor in the state’s failure to win a grant last year, which was submitted when Jon Corzine, a Democrat, was governor.
“The governor’s action decimates a plan built through hard work and compromise, single-handedly putting at risk our chances of obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to improve our schools,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.
Since Christie took office, he’s been unapologetic about bashing the union as a group concerned about teacher pay, and not education. When the union criticized his plans to decrease money for schools, he wasn’t sympathetic. Instead, he said educators should take voluntary pay freezes to avoid layoffs.
In his cover letter on Tuesday, he alluded to the fact he was unwilling to compromise on using student performance for teachers’ evaluations.
“Please know that my administration is committed to implementing these initiatives regardless of whether or not this application is successful,” Christie said in the application cover letter. “Indeed, I am so committed to them that I decided that they should not be compromised to achieve a contrived consensus among the various affected special interest groups.”
Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco wrote this report. Associated Press writers Geoff Mulvihill and Aaron Morrison contributed to this report.
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