Getting to the Bottom of the Race to the Top Fiasco

John Mooney | September 20, 2010 | Education
Senate oversight committee shows it’s willing to play the subpoena card

Another week, another legislative hearing on New Jersey’s infamous Race to the Top application.

And with it comes another pile of public documents — and some new revelations concerning what almost certainly is the most scrutinized grant bid in New Jersey history.

Following up on the assembly hearings earlier this month, the Senate’s oversight committee on Thursday morning will dig into what went wrong with the state’s failed application for $400 million in federal funds.

Its chairman, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), on Friday called for the right to subpoena key state officials and documents, after the state provided her office a box of records related to the application. It was apparently not enough, and she said her committee has been “left with no choice but to seek to use the legislature’s subpoena power.”

But the documents that were provided — including several early drafts of the application, dozens of emails from in and outside Trenton and a new state-by-state analysis of competing bids — did provide a few new disclosures about what happened behind the scenes and ultimately what resulted.

The NJEA Negotiations

Before the excitement over the state’s failure to provide rudimentary information about its education funding, which led to the ouster of Bret Schundler as education commissioner, the application was most notable for Schundler’s compromise-that-wasn’t with the New Jersey Education Association.

New emails and other documents add much to the written record of those talks in late May, preceding the June 1 grant deadline. Included was the NJEA’s extensive mark-up of a draft of the application, and state education officials writing back the next day their general agreement with much of it, at least initially.

“As we discussed, New Jersey’s application for Race to the Top Phase 2, we have made substantial changes based on your feedback,” started a May 27 email from Willa Spicer, then the deputy education commissioner, to NJEA executive director Vince Giordano.

First on the list was the decision to leave intact the use of seniority in deciding teacher layoffs, or “reductions in force,” a point the NJEA would not relinquish and Schundler was willing to concede.

“Seniority system will not be changed in the RTTT application,” Spicer wrote.

With the agreement in hand, a flurry of emails came next as education officials rushed to secure letters of support from local districts and their unions. One county superintendent wrote Schundler, “YOU DID IT! CONGRATS!”

Of course, within the next two days, the situation turned far less celebratory, and Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on the deal, largely due to the concession on seniority that he had said he would not accept.

Christie’s decision set off its own burst of emails, as the department received a flood from districts that the local unions would no longer support the application after all. Among the more vitriolic was from Westfield, where the superintendent forwarded the correspondence from the president of the local union, the Westfield Education Association.

“I am quite disgusted by the Governor’s decision to unilaterally pull from the RTTT application that was agreed upon with the NJEA,” wrote Kim Shumacher, the WEA president. “The WEA will have NOTHING to do with this any longer.”

Wireless Generation’s Role

Much has been made of the hired consultant on the application, the Brooklyn-based Wireless Generations, Inc. It was paid close $180,000 for its advice, coordination and editing on the bid, a contract that is now under review by the state Attorney General’s office. “That was on top of $335,000 the company was paid as consultant on New Jersey’s application for the competition’s first round, in which it was not a finalist.”

The written record reveals Wireless’s extensive work in that role, with its detailed breakdowns on every provision of the application, and its involvement in many of the exchanges in the final week before the June 1 submission.

The big question is whether the company should have caught the error in the funding section, and the new documents shed some new light. For instance, on May 25, a draft of the answer did include the required funding information on 2008 and 2009, and Wireless’ consultant requested Schundler to review it.

“This is largely lifted from FAQs and the prior proposal,” wrote consultant Jennifer Manise to Schundler. “Willa (Spicer) wanted to make sure you were comfortable with this language.”

But after Schundler apparently marked up the copy, removing the required language about 2008 and 2009, Wireless did not catch the new language as being problematic. Manise sent back a new draft — the eighth version — for review on the evening of May 27 that did not include the 2008 and 2009 amounts.

Following the application’s submission, after New Jersey was chosen as a finalist, Wireless was also hired for an additional $9,500 to help in the interview portion before a panel of federal reviewers.

Part of its work was providing a list of potential questions that would be asked, and in the budgetary section, Wireless provided six questions on such matters as whether there would be enough money for teacher bonuses or if too much was budgeted for data systems.

There was no mention of the budget error, and it was during this interview the mistake was first revealed.

State-by-State Analysis

Deep in the pile of documents provided Buono’s committee is one that may be most telling of all, a chart that breaks down how every state fared on each one of the 60-plus categories of the competition. It provides a few surprising details about how New Jersey stacked up.

Certainly, New Jersey’s failure on the infamous budget question stood out: It was the only state among the 19 finalists to fail to get even a majority of the points available, let alone a score as low as 4 percent of the maximum.

New Jersey also fared the worst among the finalists on how equitable its funding system was, receiving only 64 percent of the available points when the average across all states was 84 percent.

Much has been made of the New Jersey’s student and teacher data system as being a weakness in the application, and the state-by-state breakdown shows by just how much. Only California did worse among the finalists.

As for that lack of union buy-in, it has been mentioned repeatedly as the key element that may have doomed the application. But according to the analysis, New Jersey had some competition on that front. Two states that won grants — Georgia and Maryland — drew even fewer points on stakeholder support.