New Jersey's former education chief said Gov. Chris Christie sacrificed a $400 million federal grant rather than risk appearing to have negotiated with the state teachers union over the application's content.
Bret Schundler told a legislative oversight panel looking into the failed grant application that Christie vetoed compromises on merit pay and layoffs that would have won the teachers' endorsement. Instead, the application was hastily rewritten and submitted without union support. The union's lack of buy-in cost New Jersey precious points.
Christie "found it utterly intolerable for him to be viewed to have given in to them (the union)," said Schundler, who was called out publicly by the governor after striking a deal with the teachers. "The money was not worth it."
Schundler said Christie was particularly upset at being portrayed on radio station 101.5 FM as having caved to union demands.
If Christie had accepted the consequences, New Jersey would have finished fourth and received funding, Schundler told the Democrat-controlled panel, where he testified under subpoena Thursday.
New Jersey was the highest-ranked state not to receive funding, finishing 3 points behind Ohio, which got money.
The state lost 5 points for providing school funding data for the wrong year.
Senate Democratic Leader Barbara Buono, who sought subpoena power to compel Schundler to testify, said after the hearing that many disturbing details of the application process were revealed.
"It's unconscionable that the Race to the Top application was rewritten more with an eye toward punishing the (teachers union) than it was toward rewarding our schools," she said. "It's unconscionable that the decision to scrap a hard-won compromise that would have propelled our application was based on the criticisms of a radio talk-show host. And, it's unconscionable that $400 million for our schools took a back seat to politics."
Christie dismissed Schundler's account as "wrong" and said he was done spending time on his former education chief, whom he fired after a public feud that followed the grant rejection.
Schundler told lawmakers he had been happy with his agreement with the union, saying that the compromises he approved were "inconsequential."
One involved substituting the words "merit pay," which the teachers union abhorred, with the word "bonus" and referring to "bonus" provisions as a "pilot program" rather than permanent policy. Another was to scrap a provision to tie layoffs to performance rather than seniority.
Christie claimed in a news conference after the grant recipients were announced that Schundler had corrected the funding data during a grant review in Washington. The Republican governor then blamed the Obama administration for failing to accept New Jersey's corrected data.
However, Schundler said he could not have corrected the mistake because the grant rules restricted new information from being introduced during the interview. He said that is what he told the governor repeatedly before Christie spoke to the press. A video of the grant interview bore out Schundler's account.
"I never believed I needed to say, 'governor, stick to the truth, there's a videotape,'" Schundler said. "Maybe I should have."
Schundler said Christie misspoke publicly about the grant failure — either accidentally or on purpose — then erroneously blamed Schundler for providing misinformation.