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Error on Grant Application May Have Cost NJ $400M

State Assembly Speaker slams Christie administration for "stunning mistake"

Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010  |  Updated 1:37 PM EDT
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Failure to follow directions may have prevented New Jersey from winning a $400 million federal education grant.

Scoring documents from the Race to the Top grant competition show New Jersey received no points on one section because the state provided budget figures for 2010 and 2011 while the application asked for numbers from 2008 and 2009.

The section was worth 4.8 points on the 500-point scoring chart.

Ohio, the lowest-scoring state to be awarded the sought-after grant on Tuesday, got just three points more than New Jersey.

The gaffe, first reported by the Star-Ledger of Newark, comes a day after New York won about $700 million in Race to the Top funds. 

It appears that the governor's administration made the error late in the process before it submitted the application June 1, according to differences between a draft of the application reviewed by The Associated Press and the form that was submitted.

Now Democrats are teeing off on Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, for the problem. State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, called it "a stunning mistake that is going to hurt New Jersey's children.''

At a news conference Wednesday, Christie accepted responsibility for the mistake, which he called a ``clerical error'' by a midlevel staffer charged with reviewing a 1,000-page document at the state Department of Education.

But he also blamed the administration of President Barack Obama for docking the application because of it.

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler was told about the error at a meeting in Washington this month and provided the correct information, Christie said -- but it was still held against the application, which was reviewed by a national panel of education experts.

The panel appears to be more concerned with technical details than the educational proposals, Christie argued.

"This is the stuff, candidly, that drives people crazy about government and crazy about Washington,'' he said. "Does anybody in Washington, D.C., have a lick of common sense?''

Christie said his administration would ask the federal Education Department if it can have some of the $100 million left in the Race to the Top fund that hasn't been allocated.

The governor also blamed the New Jersey Education Association, the state's main teachers union, for not supporting the application -- costing points that were given for having others in the state's education community on board.

"What this application proved is that the NJEA is irrelevant," Christie said. "Because with their support, we would have gotten the Race to the Top money.''

Before the deadline, Schundler worked out some compromises with the union to win its support. Dawn Hiltner, a union spokeswoman who was on the committee, provided a draft of the application that included the budget data from the right years. But before that application was submitted, Christie said he wouldn't abide by the compromises _ most of which dealt with how merit pay for teachers would work.

The reworked application included the numbers from the wrong years.

Christie said that using the compromise would have cost the state's application even more points that the mistake did. There's one change sure to come out of the problem: Christie said the state Education Department would have two workers, rather than one, give a final check to future grant applications.

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