New Jersey Finishes Out of the Running in Race To the Top

John Mooney | January 19, 2010
Christie administration blames teachers unions for not getting behind state’s plan

New Jersey has been rejected in its initial bid for hundreds of millions in federal Race To the Top school funding grants.

Extending what has been a hot debate over the high-profile program, the Christie administration blamed the state’s teachers unions for not getting behind the state’s plan—before holding out an olive branch for the next round.

The original application to Race To the Top was an 11th-hour decision under former Gov. Jon Corzine, seeking up to $400 million in funds provided under President Obama for major reform efforts in public schools. Obama put forward $4.3 billion in all for the first round of funding, with further rounds expected.

Since taking office, Gov. Chris Christie and education commissioner Bret Schundler have openly endorsed the proposal. Schundler has spoken often about plan details, which include heavy use of data collection, assessments and teacher development (seeRace to the Top).

But on March 4, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced 16 finalists for the grants. New Jersey was not on the list otherwise dominated by eastern states. The winners will be announced in April, with Duncan saying it would likely be less than 10 states overall for this round, spending about half of the grant total.

“I can assure everyone there will be more left for the second round,” Duncan said.

Within two hours, Schundler issued a statement saying he was “extremely disappointed” in the decision but not surprised given only 20 local unions had joined in support of the application.

“From the start of this process it has been clear that while the Corzine administration submitted a good application, a major deficiency in New Jersey’s submission was the lack of support from local union leadership,” Schundler’s statement read.

“With union leaders in more than 350 participating districts refusing to sign on,” he said, “it would have been very difficult to convince the U.S. Department of Education that New Jersey was united behind this effort.”

The statewide leadership of the New Jersey Education Association had openly said it would not encourage locals to sign on to the application, citing its emphasis on student testing and the potential of using test scores as the sole means of evaluating teachers.

But Schundler also indicated that there appears some thaw for the second round of bids, no small thing in what has clearly been testy, if not hostile, relationship between Christie and the NJEA so far.

“As we begin to work on the second round due in June, I am encouraged that the NJEA leadership has agreed to work on this with us,” Schundler’s statement said. “With their support of what the President is seeking from New Jersey, I’m convinced we will be able to put forward a winning application.”

After the rejection, the union said it stood behind its opposition to the state’s bid, as it now stands, and said that many school administrators have voiced concerns as well. “Nobody’s talking about the other 200 school districts that didn’t approve this,” said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer.

School Finalists After the First Round

Out of 40 applicants in all, the 16 states named finalists were the following: Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Duncan said there were not any common themes in the finalist applications other than their commitments to reform.

“The states did a remarkable job; I couldn’t be more impressed with the commitment there,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s a competition: we expected only the best to win,” he said at another point.

When asked whether states’ support of charter schools was a deciding factor, he said there was not one critical issue. When asked if union support was crucial, he said the same, while adding that it clearly helped some. “We saw hundreds and hundreds of locals sign on,” he said. “There was great, great collaboration in many states.”

But he also added that debate has been healthy in all states. “Yes, it’s a tough conversation, but its absolutely needed,” Duncan said.

All the finalists won at least 400 points in the paperwork-heavy application, out of a maximum of 500 points. None had a perfect 500. “Every state had a strength and every state had a weakness,” Duncan said. “None of them were perfect. All can improve.”

The federal teams’ reviews of every state—including New Jersey—will be made available in April, when the winners are announced.