Standing of Schundler an Issue After Christie Rejects NJEA Accord

Governor’s move on Race to the Top application raises questions on commissioner, programs and prospects of federal aid

As with many summer romances, the relationship between the Christie administration and the New Jersey Education Association barely lasted a weekend.

The true winners and losers in the breakup will take longer to determine. These include not just programs and perhaps the prospects of $400 million in new federal aid — but also the standing of state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler.

Four days after his education commissioner and the NJEA announced agreement on New Jersey’s application for federal Race to the Top funding, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday said he had rejected the accord and the state’s bid would proceed with controversial proposals for tenure reform and merit pay that the NJEA opposed.

It was a stunning reversal on what was an unusual agreement in the first place, and one that sent pronouncements and press releases flying from all camps.

Christie said it was the NJEA and other special interests that had “selfishly thwarted school reform.” The NJEA called the reneging on the agreement a “total outrage.”

Losing Points, or Gaining Ground?

Yet after the rhetorical dust settled, questions loomed as to what comes next, not just for Schundler, who has publicly differed with Christie before, but also for the application and its assortment of proposals.

“I think it will disadvantage New Jersey on one hand,” said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “They will lose points on the application without the union’s support.”

But Jennings and others also said the changes in tenure rights and other provisions that were reinstated in the application could make up for it.

Championed by President Obama, the Race to the Top program all but demands states to overhaul their accountability systems on both schools and teachers, and the provisions included in yesterday’s bid do go further toward that end.

For instance, the application now calls for teachers with three years of poor evaluations to be in jeopardy of losing tenure. That had been removed in the accord between Schundler and NJEA but was reinstated by Christie.

In addition, Christie stepped up provisions for merit pay of teachers, taking out language the NJEA supported that called for it to be only voluntary and mostly for school-wide bonuses.

“Away from all the headlines, the application is all about the points you gain for each piece,” Jennings said. “It’s a pretty elaborate system in how the points are all accumulated. It’s not just about buy-in.”

Return of Tenure Reform

Staying out of the rhetorical fray yesterday, the state’s school board association released its letter of support for the application as it stood back in mid-May, before Schundler and the NJEA struck their short-lived deal.

The association has long pushed for tenure reform, and its leaders yesterday said they were pleased to see it back in the application.

“In our view, the application described in the Department of Education’s announcement today is a conceptually stronger document than what had been agreed to last week,” said Frank Belluscio, the school boards’ spokesman.

And even while the Democratic leadership of both the state Senate and Assembly issued joint statements decrying Christie for backing out of the agreement with the NJEA, the legislators said they would not remove their own signatures of general support for the application.

Questions on Commissioner

Schundler’s standing could be trickier to determine.

Christie yesterday gave him a vote of confidence, and Schundler’s office would not make him available to reporters during the day, although he did attend a community meeting last night in Neptune.

But others said the whole episode may only make the commissioner’s job more difficult as he tries to negotiate with various stakeholders for what is an extensive agenda, including school vouchers, charter schools, testing changes and a host of financial reforms.

He has differed with Christie before as well, most notably when he tried to soften the governor’s anti-NJEA rhetoric around the school budget votes in April, only to have Christie step it up.

“I don’t know what happens in a case like this where a deal is made and then is broken,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, representing mostly suburban districts. “Any future sense of trust could be impacted in how this all shakes out.”

Certainly, the NJEA isn’t looking to forget any time soon.

“Is this governor even in touch with his commissioner?” said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer. “It’s either dysfunction or deception at the highest levels of government. Neither one is good.”

Much of that agenda is woven into the application, which the administration filed in time for yesterday’s deadline. New Jersey was one of 35 states vying for the nearly $4 billion in available funds.

In addition to the teacher measures, for instance, the application outlines in detail a new statewide data system that would change how student and school performance is measured.

Under the system that the administration said would be ready for statewide rollout in 2012, students and schools would be gauged off their test scores over time, not just a single given year, and also against other schools statewide.

Teachers would also use portable computers akin to iPads to help track student performance over a whole menu of assessments, some annual and some quarterly, and drive lessons around that data.

In another controversial area, the application pushes charter schools as a tool for school districts to turn around low-performing schools, bringing in charter management firms to run the re-started schools.

In addition, the application calls for at least one more authorizing agency besides the state Department of Education to review and approve charter schools in the state.

Christie in his letter accompanying the Race to the Top application said many of the reforms embedded in the bid will be pursued with or without the federal money.

“Please know that my administration is committed to implementing these initiatives regardless of whether or not this application is successful,” he wrote.

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