N.J. Governor, Dems Play Blame Game over Race to Top

By Sean Cavanagh — September 01, 2010 3 min read
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New Jersey’s Race to the Top saga continues, with Democrats calling for Gov. Chris Christie to apologize for ripping the Obama administration in the wake of the state’s application error, which may have cost it $400 million in the federal competition.

Christie, a Republican, fired education commissioner Bret Schundler after the application fiasco and has appointed Rochelle Hendricks as acting commissioner while he conducts a national search for a full-time replacement.

New Jersey’s board of education, meanwhile, could wade into the issue today, as it holds a regularly scheduled meeting in Trenton.

To recap the drama so far: New Jersey finished with the 11th-ranked application in the $4 billion federal competition, narrowing missing out on an award, since the top 10 states were named as winners. Controversy erupted when it was revealed that the state’s application had been docked 5 points because New Jersey officials included the wrong budget years in one section of the document; New Jersey’s score was just 3 points behind 10th-ranked Ohio’s. The day after the awards were announced, Christie denounced the Obama administration and federal reviewers for alleged bureaucratic inflexibility, saying they could have alerted New Jersey officials to the error and allowed them to fix it.

Yet Christie also went further, claiming that Schundler and the state’s team, during their in-person interviews with federal reviewers, provided the correct numbers that had been missing from the application. But when the U.S. Department of Education released a video of that interview a day later, it showed that when federal reviewers asked about those numbers, the state could not provide them. Within days, Christie had fired Schundler, saying the commissioner had misled him about what had gone on during the session with federal reviewers.

But Schundler, while taking responsibility for the mistake, says he was truthful with the governor from the get-go. He says that he warned Christie not to make public statements defending the state’s efforts to explain its application error to federal reviewers, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, which has been leading coverage of the story. In fact, Schundler produced e-mails last week showing that he informed the governor’s staff the day before that he did not provide the correct application data, according to the paper. The ex-commissioner told the Associated Press that the state education department had told him that internal notes revealed that he appeared to have been responsible for an editing error during the final stages of completing the application, before it was submitted.

The governor, who has called for an expansion of school choice, charter schools, and merit pay in New Jersey, has since replaced Schundler with Hendricks, who to date has served as the assistant commissioner for the state’s division of school effectiveness and choice.

But Democratic legislators in New Jersey don’t appear to be ready to move on just yet. They sent a letter to Christie demanding that he apologize for directing fire at the Obama administration when, in fact, the goof was his administration’s fault.

“The blame that you foisted on the Obama administration was misdirected and your display completely at odds with the expected actions of a state leader,” state Sens. Stephen M. Sweeney and Barbara Buono said. “Instead of taking responsibility for an error that rested solely with the state, you launched into a diatribe against the federal bureaucracy, the president, the federal Department of Education and anyone else to whom you could direct the blame.”

Christie has rejected the Democrats’ criticism as a political show. And he struck a defiant stance when asked when asked by reporters what lessons the state could learn from the controversy, according to the Star-Ledger.

“Don’t lie to the governor,” he responded.

ONLINE CHAT: Looking beyond New Jersey, we’ll be taking questions about the Race to the Top competition tomorrow in a live online chat hosted by EdWeek. I’ll be joined by our federal reporter and Politics K-12 blogger extraordinaire, Alyson Klein. It kicks off at 2 p.m.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.