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As Race to the Top Finalist, NJ Preps for Next Test

Governor and union still sparring as state readies team to make final push for federal funds.

New Jersey is still in the running for federal Race to the Top funding, but now comes the true test: Convincing judges in Washington, D.C., that it can actually pull off the reforms it promises.

The state was announced yesterday as one of 19 finalists for $3.4 billion in grants aimed at remaking how districts test their students, evaluate and pay their teachers and turn around their most troubled schools.

Next up is sending a team to Washington to convince evaluators the reforms will really happen.

“It is less a competition of states now, and more looking at the capacity of states to implement their plans,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan yesterday in announcing the finalists. He estimated there could 10 to 15 winners announced in September.

But proving New Jersey’s capacity will be a challenge for Gov. Chris Christie after the drama that led up to the application in late May. The administration first negotiated with the state’s largest teachers union to sign onto the bid, only to have Christie reject the compromises at the last minute to proceed without the union’s backing.

Yesterday, Christie boasted of New Jersey’s being named as a finalist without the New Jersey Education Association’s support.

“This announcement affirms our decision to stick with real reform and not capitulate to the watered-down, failed status quo approach advocated by the NJEA,” he said in a statement.

“Now is the time for New Jersey's leaders to join me to begin enactment of the pillars of real education reform contained within our Race to the Top application -- more charter school opportunities for students, more choice for parents and fidelity to placing student success ahead of union self-interest."

The NJEA fired back that Christie was only politicizing the process, calling it a “tired act” to keep attacking the union and citing $1.1 billion in state aid cuts to schools this year.

“It is clear by now that this governor will do anything to deflect attention away from the damage that his cuts have done to public education,” said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian in her own statement.

“Those cuts,” she said, “are 14 times the amount of annual funding that the grant would bring.”

But union opposition may not be the only obstacle. A new study from the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse, found that district support for a key component of the application to provide performance pay to teachers was wanting in New Jersey.

In the report, the commission cited just 34 percent of New Jersey districts signing onto the state’s bid for so-called merit pay to teachers, the second lowest of any of the finalists.

“That’s really quite low,” said Stephanie Rose, the analyst who completed the report. “Maybe that was skewed by the last-minute changes in the application. The judges must have still seen there is potential.”

Rose said it could be a challenge for many states to make such arguments. Florida would completely revamp its pay system for teachers, with an emphasis in student performance in setting pay.

That proposal won close-to-unanimous backing from districts, she said, but that was with full funding dangled before them.

“It will be interesting to see if any of these states, if they don’t win all the money, will still go through with it,” she said. “It will be something to watch.”

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