Schundler Firing Highlights Earlier Clash With Christie

Prior dispute over teachers union and Race to the Top application may have cost New Jersey $400 million -- and Schundler his job

Bret Schundler was fired today as New Jersey’s education commissioner, and a lot will be made of how his staff erred badly in leaving out important details in New Jersey’s federal Race to the Top application—angering Gov. Chris Christie along the way.

But in maybe the most striking comments of Schundler’s two-hour self-defense from his Jersey City kitchen today, the former commissioner also shed new light on the episode three months ago that ultimately may have cost the state a winning bid.

It was then — on the eve of the application’s June 1 deadline — that Schundler negotiated a compromise with the state’s dominant teachers union to support the application, only to have Christie throw it out at the last minute and file the bid without the union’s support.

Teachers Union Was Key

For the first time and in stark contrast to previous claims, Schundler today maintained that the state would have easily prevailed in the federal competition if it had the support of the New Jersey Education Association. He said what was gained in a bolder proposal wasn’t worth what was lost in the union’s lack of support.

“I think we would have come in third place,” Schundler said of the state’s prospects with NJEA support, instead of its 11th-place finish without. “And I also think we’d have the possibility of having a lot of this stuff in law by now.”

Of course, any comments may be suspect from a man just fired over his department’s error in failing to provide required information in the application and, worse, embarrassing the governor in how it happened.

Later, Schundler said he did not entirely blame Christie for his decision on the application.

But Schundler’s comments left Christie’s office again defending the governor’s decision to rebuff the NJEA in late May, this time adding Schundler among its targets.

Christie spokesman Mike Drewniak yesterday called Schundler’s claims “bull” and provided what he said were bullet-points from Schundler’s own staff that justified the application that was filed without the NJEA’s support.

Running the Numbers

One said that the application’s section including these proposals gained 124.4 out of 138 available points, a 23 point improvement over the Round I application under former Gov. Jon Corzine.

That ultimate application included language proposing a merit pay system for teachers statewide and eliminating seniority as a factor in deciding what teachers are laid off first. Both proposals were strongly opposed by the NJEA.

Reading from those bullet-points, Christie made the same argument Wednesday when he defended the latest application, despite its narrow loss.

“You can see from the application that if I had abandoned merit pay, abandoned meaningful teacher evaluations, abandoned tenure reform as the school unions were demanded of us, we wouldn’t have even been on the ballgame,” he said. “We would have been down in the last third.”

Still, federal reviewers of the application raised the lack of union buy-in repeatedly in their written comments released this week, as well as the dearth of local district support.

In Step with the Governor

In other new details about the NJEA negotiations in the spring, Schundler today conceded that he may have reached some agreements with the union without the governor’s explicit support. But he also said there were “reasons to believe I was not getting ahead of the governor.”

“As I was going forward [with the union], I was keeping people abreast of what I was doing,” Schundler said.

Still, he said the one sticking point was his agreement with the union to keep seniority in place for deciding teacher layoffs, or so-called “reductions in force,” known as RIFs.

“We got so close, and RIFs don’t happen that much in education, anyway,” he said today. “I thought it was worth giving up. As I said then, that was my error.”

And in an interview from his Jersey City brownstone that saw Schundler in a range of moods, from defiant to studious to almost teary at one point, the former commissioner said he did not totally blame the governor for taking the position he did.

“He shouldn’t be apologizing to anybody on that,” Schundler said. “He made a tactical error, but he wasn’t wrong.”

“Everything he wants to do is good policy,” Schundler said of his now-former boss. “The NJEA can beat us up all day long, they can beat the governor up all day long, but it’s them who are not supporting good policy.”

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