New Jersey Finishes Just Out of the Money in Race to the Top

Only three points kept NJ out of the winner’s circle, but a close review of its application reveals many categories where it came up short

So close.

New Jersey has for a second time failed to win federal Race to the Top money, but this time it was just three out of 500 points separating the state from the list of 10 winners, including neighboring New York and Maryland.

And maybe most wrenching, a close look at the evaluation of New Jersey’s application showed some notable shortcomings — not just in the big proposals like merit pay and charter schools but in some of the technical details as well.

As in the first round of the competition for more than $4 billion in funding, New Jersey’s weakest showing was in the student data systems that track test scores and other achievement information. The state earned only two-thirds of the available points in this category.

And when talking about a three-point margin, the difference may have even come down to something the state’s team failed to include in the application altogether.

Analyzing the Evaluations

According to evaluations obtained by NJ Spotlight, New Jersey may have been penalized nearly five points for not including required funding information from 2008 and 2009 as part of a section that rates whether the state had consistently financed its public schools.

There is no guarantee that New Jersey would have gotten all five points, given the state’s cuts in school aid since then. But Gov. Chris Christie’s spokeswoman Maria Comella nevertheless called that omission an “oversight” and conceded it could have made a significant difference.

Comella also pointed out it was a lengthy and complex application with a host of points awarded and taken away. “It’s a 1,000-page application, there’s a lot in there,” she said.

She and state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who led the state’s team, said the state’s failure to win the proposed $399 million grant for New Jersey would not stall Christie’s reform agenda for the public schools.

“While I am disappointed that New Jersey, having been chosen as a finalist, was not ultimately selected as a recipient at the end of this highly competitive process, our commitment to bold, meaningful reform remains firm,” Schundler said in a statement.

Comella said a package of bills connected to the proposal would be coming this fall. She did not detail them, but the proposal had called for a change in how schools evaluate and pay teachers (including the use of test scores), reforms in how tenure is granted and retained, and an expansion of charter schools.

What Cost NJ the Race?

The Race to the Top application has consumed much of the state’s education establishment – especially in Trenton – for the last three months, and the details of how New Jersey lost for a second time are sure to draw some debate for the next few months.

Much has centered around the support – or lack thereof – from the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.

After opposing the bid in the first round, the union initially reached a compromise with Schundler for the second application. But on the last weekend before the application had to be filed, Christie backed out of the deal, saying that Schundler had reached the agreement without his consent. He added that he would stand by bolder plans for revamping tenure and imposing merit pay on schools, proposals that the NJEA had rejected.

The NJEA yesterday blamed Christie for the application’s rejection, saying he hurt the bid by rejecting the union’s support. Comella pointed out that several states winning the grants had included both the bolder proposals and their unions’ support.

Others wondered how much the drama eventually hurt the state’s chances.

“There will be plenty of time for Monday morning quarterbacking once the full set of ratings is released and we can see exactly where this proposal fell short,” said state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “Until that time, however, it’s going to be hard not to wonder if the alleged lack of communication between the Governor and Commissioner Schundler has had expensive consequences.”

A Conspicuous Lack of Enthusiasm

A review of the application’s evaluations indicated a more complicated picture. The lack of union support clearly hurt but so did the shortage of support from school districts as well. Less than 60 percent of districts said they would explicitly enact the proposed reforms.

As one reviewer wrote: “This lack of greater involvement will challenge NJ’s efforts to meet its goals.”

Even where the state was praised for its proposals for evaluating teachers and schools, that lack of buy-in appeared to hurt the state’s overall standing. “With over 40 percent of the [local districts] not participating, the potential for statewide impact may be limited,” a reviewer wrote.

Still other issues also appeared to impede the state’s application, most notably the readiness of the state’s student data collection system. While the system is being put in place and credited for making big strides in the last year, the slow progress on the data system as a whole has long been a trouble spot for the state, and was its lowest point total in the first round as well.

This time, reviewers said the state still failed to show its system would be ready to be used for developing how teachers are evaluated and trained. One reviewer specifically cited how the state is still two years from even having a full system in place for helping teachers improve themselves.

“The professional development plan, as described, is minimal and lacks detail” the reviewer wrote. “Without a fully functional instructional improvement system ready until 2012, it will be very difficult to tell if the training is useful and is fostering improvement during the life of the grant.”

Some advocates said with the rejection, they hope the state doesn’t slow down in developing the data systems, which will be critical in much of its reforms going forward.

“When looking at our greatest weaknesses within the reviewers’ point allocations, it’s clear our Achilles heel remains our inadequate data systems,” said Kathleen Nugent, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, which has closely tracked the application.

“While they’re not sexy, they’re absolutely foundational to tracking student progress, giving educators tools to improve and hold teachers and principals accountable, and measuring the overall success of our education system,” she said.

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