A Senate panel examining New Jersey's unsuccessful attempt to win a $400 million federal education grant voted Thursday to subpoena two people responsible for the failed application.
The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee said it would compel New Jersey's former education commissioner and a consultant to testify and submit documents explaining the Race to the Top gaffe. The vote to issue the subpoenas came just after the Democratic-controlled Senate gave itself limited subpoena power in a party-line 21-14 vote.
New Jersey's application finished just off the mark, 3 points behind Ohio, the lowest-scoring state to receive funding. Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who was fired over the failed grant, said he supplied budget information for the wrong year, costing the state 5 points.
Gov. Chris Christie cut $820 million in public education aid in the current budget. This week he proposed education reforms that include merit pay for teachers and more charter schools.
The Race to the Top grant has become the Republican governor's first public embarrassment. He tangled with his education chief and ordered the application hastily redone after Schundler negotiated concessions with the state teachers union that the governor didn't like. The teachers union didn't endorse the revised application; their lack of support also cost the state points. Christie feuded publicly with Schundler after firing him. Democrats have been trying to make the mistake a political issue ever since.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the source of the mistake and the mechanics of how it happened have already been well documented.
"It's politics, not fact-finding," Drewniak said. "It's pretty obvious that the source of the error, how and where it happened, have been made very clear from testimony already heard."
Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic chairwoman of the investigatory panel, said it's important to get to the bottom of the error to explain to taxpayers how the mistake happened and make sure it doesn't occur again. Republicans said Schundler already has taken responsibility for the mistake. They questioned why a lower-scoring application submitted under Democratic former Gov. Jon Corzine didn't warrant the same level of scrutiny.
"There is nobody who is reasonably observant, who reads the newspaper and understands public affairs in this state that doesn't already know the answer to the question why we didn't get that money. It's not terribly complicated," said Sen. Joe Kyrillos, a Monmouth County Republican. "The short reason is somebody made a mistake and they fessed up to it."
Sen. Nick Scutari, a Union County Democrat, said the amount of money involved necessitated an inquiry into how New Jersey's application fell short.
"$400 million dollars — are you kidding me? You don't want answers to these questions. You're just going to say there's been a mistake, let's move on," Scutari said. "Well, I think there's going to be some more grant applications we're going to be eligible for, so maybe, just maybe we should figure out what happened."
The hearing was scheduled for Oct. 7.
The subpoena power granted Thursday allows only Schundler and Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, the consultant that helped the state compile the application, to be called to testify.
Senate President Steve Sweeney pulled back a resolution last week that would have given Buono wider subpoena powers after Christie agreed to turn over documents to the panel. On Thursday, Buono said she was disappointed that the two boxes of documents contained only marginally relevant materials and that portions were redacted or were not turned over.
She said she'd seek to call additional witnesses, or pursue other documents, if Schundler and Berger don't provide the information she's seeking.