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Fine Print: The Race to the Top Collection

The five documents that rocked New Jersey education.

The Documents:

  • New Jersey’s Race to the Top applications, Round 1 and 2

  • Race to the Top, Technical Review Forms, Reviewers 1-5

  • Bret Schundler’s Letter to U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan

  • The Schundler-Comella Emails

What they say: The written record will play a central role as the Legislature today starts committee hearings on who knew what and when in the Race to the Top drama that led to Gov. Chris Christie’s ouster of Bret Schundler as education commissioner. Essential documents include the applications that started the whole thing, the reviewers’ comments that exposed the pivotal mistake, and the letter and emails that show officials scrambling to fix the error, to no avail.

As you listen live to the first hearing, scheduled for Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., here is a primer to each document and the lines that mattered.

The first application: What could have been

”New Jersey increased its percentage of spending on education from 36.9% in 2008 to 39.6% in 2009. Nominal education appropriations decreased by 4.7%, from $12.0B to $11.5B, a decline that was smaller than the 11.3% decline in total State appropriations from $32.6B to $28.9B.” (Section F, page 3)

To the fateful question of New Jersey’s investment in public education in fiscal 2008 and 2009, the state’s answer in the first round was two sentences. New Jersey received 9.6 out of a maximum 10 points on this section. The application still lost.

The second application: What wasn’t

“In fiscal year 2011, despite huge budget strains, the Governor is proposing an increase in state revenue-based support for education by 2.2% ($238 million). As proposed, preschool-12 education spending as a percentage of the state budget will be 35.4%. Federal ARRA funding will not be available to school districts in FY 2011, but the Governor and the executive team remain committed to funding education even as state revenue-based support for most other areas of state spending has been cut. This demonstrates that, despite severe fiscal challenges, the leadership in the state of New Jersey remains committed to education.” (Section F, page 3.)

The answer in Round 2 was twice as long as in Round 1, but New Jersey left out the one thing the question asked for: What the state spent on public education in 2008 and 2009. The state received 0.2 out of 5 available points, enough to make the difference between winning and losing.

The Technical Review Form, Race to the Top, Reviewer 3

“The Governor states that despite enormous budget challenges, the state increased funds to public schools in 2010. The narrative states that the state is proposing a 2.2 percent increase for 2011, but the evidence asked for was the actual increase for 2008-2009.The percentage of the state budget proposed for education certainly seems adequate, but how this percentage compares with that of previous years was not included. Because the evidence required was not presented, no points are awarded.”

Reviewer 3 was the most prolific of the five reviewers, giving the longest comments to the critical question. But the others said much the same: no details about 2008-2009, no points.

Schundler's letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: Forgive and forget

“It was confirmed verbally during the Aug. 11 presentation that New Jersey satisfied this criteria. Had New Jersey been able to correct the clerical error, those points would have been earned, and New jersey would have been able to earn 9th place and full funding rather than 11th place and no funding.” (page 2)

Realizing the state’s mistake, Christie went before reporters to declare that the state had provided the data during the oral presentation and should not be penalized for what he called a “clerical error” in the written application. He dispatched Schundler to write a letter to Duncan to at least try to receive some leftover funds in the Race to the Top pool. Schundler in that letter said federal reviewers were informed that New Jersey met the criteria, although stopped short of saying the actual data was provided. According to a video of the presentation, it turns out neither happened, leading to Christie firing Schundler and claiming that his former commissioner had lied to him.

The Schundler – Comella emails: He said, She said (The linked document includes Schundler’s note to reporters, as well as emails from his communications director, Alan Guenther.)

We didn't let the DOE know we had made the error because we didn't know we had made it -- not until a panelist asked us about the Fiscal Year 2008 budget data....

When we were asked us about it, we checked our appendices. All we could do was confirm that we had erred ‐‐ the 2008 data was not included....

We had instead given them FY 2010 vs FY 2009 data, when what they sought was FY 2009 vs FY 2008 data. ("Email from Bret Schundler to Maria Comella, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 5:14 p.m.")

The day the feds announced New Jersey’s narrow loss, Christie communications director Maria Comella queried Schundler about how and when the mistake was made, and whether the state had in fact corrected it. Schundler said he hadn’t provided the actual data, and he released the email exchange to back up his claim that he did not lie to Christie.

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