Race to the Top 2011: The Summer Sequel

The purse is smaller but the odds are better, could this be New Jersey's year?

When it comes to New Jersey and the federal Race to the Top competition, the question is: Will the third time be the charm?

New Jersey officials yesterday said the state will compete for the famous — some might say infamous — federal money in what will be a smaller field with a smaller purse than the past two rounds.

In Round 1, the state was not even a finalist. Round 2 last summer left New Jersey an embarrassed near-miss, with a mere three points costing the state $400 million and former education commissioner Bret Schundler his job.

Schundler has been succeeded by Chris Cerf, and the new commissioner acted last night like someone wanting to putting Round 2 behind the state and confident New Jersey will fare better this time.

Still, some of the sore feelings of last year’s entry — particularly between the teachers union and the administration — have continued to fester.

Better Odds

The prize money isn’t quite as high, but the prospects are improved. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced yesterday that the federal government would open up the competition again to the nine previous finalists that were not among the 10 states to win last year.

The total funding will be $200 million, as opposed to the previous $4 billion, which for New Jersey would amount to a maximum of $50 million. Duncan also
announced a new round of competition for all states specifically for preschool, with funds totaling $500 million.

“We will definitely compete for that,” Cerf said of the preschool money. “We have a very successful program — and I don’t say that about too many things — and we will definitely compete for that.”

The scoring for the K-12 competition has yet to be detailed, Cerf said, with his understanding that finalists would be judged on how well they have followed through on the policies outlined in the prior round.

For New Jersey, much of last year’s Race to the Top application has been the centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie’s education reform agenda, including teacher evaluation and tenure and expanded charter schools.

The Christie administration has recently approved another 23 charter schools, albeit against some local backlash. Its tenure and teacher evaluation programs have been proposed, and face good odds in the legislature.

“Maybe I am reading between the lines, but I think they want to know if states have continued to pursue the practices of the initial application,” Cerf said. “I would think New Jersey has a very positive message.”

Adding to the state’s chances is Cerf himself, with the new commissioner well established in national school reform circles and on first-name basis with Duncan.

The $50 million available to New Jersey is a fraction of the $400 million last time, but it may come with fewer strings and could be directed at some of the critical statewide improvements sought in the last application. Among them is completion of database management system that lies at the center of many of the proposals.

Lack of Support

Still, some of the issues that cost the state the bid last time haven’t gone away. The technicality that cost five crucial points is sure to be corrected, but even more points were arguably lost in the lack of support from teacher unions. That could be an even tougher sell this time with the open war between Christie and the unions only deepening.

Steve Wollmer, the communications chief of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), was diplomatic yesterday and said that his organization wants to be at the table for the new bid and would hope the Christie administration would welcome them. Senior staff is to meet on the topic today, he said.

“Naturally, our preference is to be involved,” Wollmer said. “Whether or not we’d be welcomed is anybody’s guess.”

“The last experience was so unpleasant, nobody wants a reprise of that,” he continued. “But we have always maintained we have a lot to offer.”

It appears unlikely there will be many olive branches passed between the two sides. Despite some initial cordiality and even meetings when Cerf was appointed, the NJEA and the new commissioner have not built much of a relationship, both sides said.

“There hasn’t been a lot of interaction,” Wollmer said.

“I have reached out to them,” Cerf said. “They have my number.”

Some Democratic leaders were quick to remind the public of what happened last time as well, with the chairman of the Assembly’s education committee issuing a press release urging the state to reapply — and taking the opportunity to throw in a few digs.

Bungled Application

“Gov. Chris Christie’s administration completely mishandled their last application, costing New Jersey $400 million in school aid,” said Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex). “Because of their follies, we are now limited to receiving $10 million to $50 million in this latest round of funding.”

“The Christie administration needs to take advantage of this new opportunity and do it right this time,” added Diegnan.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who has proposed tenure reforms similar to the administration’s, did not mention last year’s saga but instead spoke of the promise of the new money.

“Today’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Education that New Jersey will have the opportunity to vie for additional funding for these initiatives is exciting news,” Ruiz said in a statement. “A competition of this kind can only bring more energy to the discussion in our schools, and in our communities, about our efforts to bring about reform.”

“Most importantly,” she said, “it will give us a chance to secure funding that will be critical to implementing some of the strategies necessary to facilitate educational excellence statewide.”