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Yea or Nay: NJ Seeks Friends for 'Race to the Top' Bid

Christie wins Legislature's general support, but adds compromise and cash in quest for other backing.

Legislative compromises, last-minute conference calls, and now $100,000 guarantees: these are among the tools the Christie administration is pulling out to gain support for its bid for the federal Race to the Top school reform program.

The stakes are high, up to $400 million from President Obama's federal program, which is demanding new accountability and school reform measures from states that receive the Race to the Top funds. And critical in the state's application is buy-in from a range of key players in the state's education system, from the Legislature in its votes yesterday to a continued wooing of school districts and teachers.

The deadline is June 1, and Gov. Chris Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, are trying to make friends everywhere they can for an application that is expected to propose teacher merit pay, tenure reform and other controversial measures.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
The voting buttons on every legislator's desk in the General Assembly and Senate chambers.

No easy task when schools and unions aren’t feeling particularly friendly to the administration these days. So that’s where the politics and compromise begins.

So far, about 150 districts have signed memorandums of understanding that stipulate their support for the application, officials said. That’s well short of the 361 that signed up last time, but there are still two weeks to go. And now they will have an extra incentive.

Districts received a memo yesterday from the state Department of Education that all those that sign on in support will receive a minimum of $100,000 from the grant, even if it has to come out of the state’s own share.

The grant calls for half of the sum allotted—potentially $200 million—to go to participating districts, with a heftier portion going to so-called Title I districts with high numbers of low-income students.

But the memo said that even non-Title I schools would get the minimum as an extra incentive to join the program.

Districts that do not sign the MOU would not be eligible for any direct aid, either way, it said, although the state’s share would be for reforms and improvements such as new testing and teacher training that would apply statewide.

“We want districts to participate from the beginning, and to be discussing and contributing to reform with us,” said Alan Guenther, the department’s spokesman.

Schundler is on a barnstorming tour of the state to make the case as well, hosting a meeting in Harrison last night and making stops in Ocean City and Westhampton in the last week.

Next up is Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg next Tuesday evening.

Schundler also needs the approval of the state Board of Education, and that proved a bit of a dance at the board’s meeting Wednesday, the last before the application was due.

Credit: NJ Spotlight
Josephine Hernandez, president of State Board of Education, and Education Commissioner Bret Schundler discussing various pieces in the state Race to the Top application at the board's meeting Wednesday.

Or maybe not, with board leaving open the possibility of a special meeting by conference call next week to get its collective head around the application.

“I’m expecting the call,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s vice president on Wednesday.

There isn’t much question the board will sign on, but Wednesday’s meeting saw a few points where the board’s support of specific pieces in the application are by no means assured.

For instance, the board heard a plan to open up teacher certification to teachers from other states, as long as they meet certain requirements. One of them was a letter attesting to a teacher’s experience and skills.

“That’s too broad for me,” said board member Kathleen Dietz. “That doesn’t hold them to the New Jersey’s high standards. Anybody can write a letter.”

One asked if there was any urgency to approving this proposal? “It counts for points on Race to the Top,” Schundler told a somewhat surprised board.

“I don’t see too many brought in this way, but it does count for points,” he said.

Another point of contention was merit pay bonuses, maybe Schundler's most controversial piece of the application, and some board members quizzed him to the fairness of bonuses going to individual teachers versus schools as a whole.

"I think we'd leave the door open to a later decision," he said.

Still, other topics were more amenable. One requirement in the application is that states will participate in a set of national standards for literacy and math, known as the Common Core Standards. More than 40 states have signed on so far, even though the standards are not yet completed.

New Jersey has always been supportive of the core proposal, and state officials have gone so far as to suggest districts not buy new textbooks until the standards are completed. That didn’t change yesterday.

“Consider it a consensus,” said Josephine Hernandez, the board president.

The last stop on the checklist was the state’s Legislature, meeting for a voting session yesterday. And while both the Assembly and Senate gave their unanimous backing, it wasn’t for much.

“The Legislature expresses its support for the submission of the Department of Education’s application for a federal Race to the Top grant,” read the identical measures in the Senate and Assembly, approved unanimously in a consent list of uncontested bills.

That was pretty much it. No specifics. No mention of merit pay, charter schools, nothing.

But good enough for Schundler, after working late hours last week to devise a legislative bill that first and foremost would have widespread support for the Race for the Top application.

He initially crafted a proposal for the Legislature that would specify his new accountability rules for teachers and schools, including merit pay and teacher evaluations in which at least half the points would be student performance.

But he was told anything that controversial was unlikely to gain broad support, at least not before the applications's deadline in two weeks.

The fallback was a broader resolution of general support, much like that adopted in Delaware with an application that did win in the last round.

So general even the New Jersey Education Association could like it, or at least testify in support.

With time short before the deadline, lawmakers agreed it was better to have a general resolution than none at all.

“There was an urgency and some action had to be taken” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the Assembly sponsor who helped craft the compromise: “So let’s get all the stakeholders together on what we agree on, as opposed to find reasons we can’t go through with it. That’s what this resolution is all about.”

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the sponsor of the Senate version, said the specifics of the application will still get their own discussion and debate when the time comes.

“But I think this is a first step,” she said. "For the first time in the last few months, we're on the same path."

And Christie in an evening press conference praised both chambers for getting on board, while pressing for the provisions in the application that could prove a tougher lift.

“I think everyone agrees the extra $400 million would be fabulous, but also important are the reforms embedded in these resolutions,” he said.

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