Ready for Its Closeup: NJ Heads for Race to the Top Interview

With millions in federal education funding at stake, Commissioner Schundler and team take state’s case to Washington

Bret Schundler will lead a team of five to Washington, D.C., next week to try to sell a panel of judges on New Jersey’s Race to the Top application for $399 million in federal reform grants.

Schundler, the state education commissioner, will be joined by deputy commissioner Andrew Smarick and assistant commissioners Willa Spicer and Rochelle Hendricks. Daniel Gohl, program director for the Newark public schools, will also be on hand for Wednesday’s 90-minute interview portion of the high-profile application process.

Spicer this week said the team has been rehearsing its presentation to the five expected judges, as well as the question-and-answer session that is to follow.

“We’re preparing for both with all deliberate speed,” she told the state Board of Education.

New Jersey is one of 19 finalists for the $3.4 billion in competitive grants that have become the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s education agenda.

The program pushes for specific changes in how districts and charter schools operate, from the evaluation and compensation of teachers to models for revamping under-performing schools.

Federal officials said have said 10 to 15 states could receive funding in this round. Two states — Tennessee and Delaware — won funding in the program’s first round this summer, in which New Jersey was not a finalist.

For all their attention, however, the weight of the interviews is uncertain.

Expected to comprise 30-minute presentations from the states and an hour of questions from the panel, the interviews are meant as a chance to demonstrate a state’s capacity to implement the programs it promises in its application. Last round, finalists brought along legislators or local districts to show the buy-in.

But some have also questioned whether the interviews meant all that much after the review of applications that can exceed 1,000 pages.

One analysis of the last round showed an average shift — up or down — of just 4.5 points out of the 500 available, according to Michael Griffith, a policy analyst of the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Federal officials said all of the current finalists have at least 400 points after the written submission, although they are not to disclose the specific scores until the winners are announced.

“It’s hard to know the impact, as we don’t know what state is first and what’s last,” Griffith said.

Schundler’s team includes some of the key department personnel involved in New Jersey’s application.

Smarick, a former federal education official and senior fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., just joined the department this week, but he was at meetings during which the bid was drafted in May, officials said.

Spicer was the state’s point person in the final work, and Hendricks leads the state’s Division of School Effectiveness and Choice, which will presumably oversee many of the proposed changes, especially around charter schools.

Gohl is executive assistant for innovation and change to Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey, specifically leading turnaround efforts in five of the district’s schools. Those projects are under big federal grants as well. Gohl also knows his way around Washington, having served under Janey in his previous job as that district’s school superintendent.