NJ Education Officials Noticed, Ignored "Race to the Top" Mistakes

Some NJ officials spotted grant application error

By Angela Delli Santi
|  Tuesday, Sep 7, 2010  |  Updated 8:30 PM EDT
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NJ Education Officials Noticed, Ignored "Race to the Top" Mistakes

AP

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, left, listens as former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler answers a question Thursday, July 15, 2010, while they stand in a classroom at E. Raymond Appleby Elementary School in Spotswood, N.J.

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Four people who accompanied New Jersey's education chief to Washington to make the state's case for $400 million in federal education funds said they knew the state's grant application contained a mistake but didn't discuss it before the presentation.

One of the four, Newark public schools official Dan Gohl, who was asked to help present New Jersey's Race to the Top application, said he never mentioned the error to Education Commissioner Bret Schundler or anyone in Gov. Chris Christie's front office because a consultant said there was no chance for the state to fix its application after the deadline.

New Jersey lost 5 points for giving budget data for the wrong years. The state finished 3 points behind Ohio, which received federal funding.

The mistake, and the embarrassing public feud that ensued between Christie and Schundler, whom he fired, was the subject of an Assembly Appropriations hearing on Tuesday. The hearing, which Democrats insist was convened to get to the bottom of the error to make sure it doesn't happen again, was dismissed by Assembly Republican leader Alex DeCroce as a "political witch hunt."

Christie, meanwhile, was about 65 miles north unveiling an ethics and pension reform agenda that will require approval from the Legislature. None of his front office staff attended the Assembly hearing. Afterward, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said she would consider using subpoena powers to compel them to testify at some point.

Democratic lawmakers in Trenton convened the hearing to shed more light on the biggest embarrassment so far in the swashbuckling Republican governor's eight months in office: How the state made an error on a federal application that likely cost it a $400 million grant.

The Senate plans to hold a similar hearing later this month.

Schundler has said he accepts responsibility for swapping out 2008-09 budget data with figures for 2010-11 that the application didn't require. Schundler and his team failed to produce the required figures for the Washington reviewers and seemed surprised they were being asked for the data.

After the grant winners were announced and New Jersey wasn't on the list, Christie told reporters Schundler had given reviewers the correct figures. He then teed off on federal bureaucrats for not accepting the revised data. When a video tape contradicted the governor's account, Christie accused Schundler of misleading him and fired him.

Schundler said he never told the governor he had produced the correct data, and the governor knew it when he reported otherwise.

Schundler declined to appear before the Assembly panel, but sent a statement.

"After Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature finish dissecting how I made my editing error, I hope they will come together and work to pass the critical education reforms in our Race to The Top application," he wrote. "After all, it was that set of reforms which President Obama's grant money was intended to encourage in the first place."

Education officials said the clerical error alone doesn't explain why New Jersey finished just out of the money.

They say the state lost more points on its failed application for not having teacher support merit pay and tenure reforms and for having antiquated data systems.

The powerful teachers union supported the original application, but pulled its endorsement over differences with Christie on tenure that forced a hasty revision of the submission days before the deadline.

"Never did (the committee) address that fact that New Jersey lost more points on its application because of the New Jersey Education Association's lack of support," DeCroce said. "That was a critical deficiency in our application, but they would never even consider holding the NJEA accountable."

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