Fine Print: New Jersey’s “Race to the Top” Scores

John Mooney | December 19, 2011 | Education
The state misses out again, this time on the federal Early Learning Challenge

What it is: New Jersey again finished out of the running for federal Race to the Top funds, this time in its Early Learning Challenge, which would provide up to $60 million for programs such as a new rating system for preschools and a “kindergarten readiness” assessment. Each state’s application was graded by a team of five reviewers, who gave numerical scores and comments on each component of the bid. New Jersey’s reviewers didn’t have any strong criticisms of the state’s proposal, but consistently found enough shortcomings that kept New Jersey from being one of the top nine that won awards.

What it will mean: The rejection sets back the state’s timeframe for implementing its plans, especially those that would have given quality ratings and follow-up training to hundreds of preschools across the state. New Jersey officials said that will still happen, but at a slower pace.

What it also means: To say the least, the Christie administration doesn’t have a stellar record on federal education grants. This is the third Race to the Top competition in which the state has fallen short, the most famous being a year ago when New Jersey lost $400 million on what was a technicality. The state has also lost out three years running on federal charter school start-up funding.

The numbers: In this competition, New Jersey finished 15th out of 37 states applying, with a score of 221.8 out of a maximum of 300. The top score was North Carolina with 269.6. California was the lowest scorer to still win a grant, with 243.6.

Reviewer No. 4: Four of the five reviewers, drawn from a list of experts and officials, gave New jersey at least 200 out of their maximum of 300 points. Reviewer No. 4 — the names for each state are kept anonymous — came in at 189, continually citing a lack of specifics in the bid about just how the state would meet its promises. “Many of the proposed projects appear to be more a conceptual idea with limited actions currently taken, or broad actions proposed in a very compressed timeframe.”

Other themes: Even among the reviewers with higher scores, the state’s application appeared to lose significant points on a few key areas, including its planned assessment system for incoming kindergartners, its own budgetary commitment to the projects, and some of the details as to how it would grade preschool programs.

The commissioner’s response: “The reality is this was a very positive process for us. Through it, we identified a number of ways to coordinate agencies much better and in more focused ways, and a very significant percentage of this we’re still planning to do and actually will be able to do with existing resources,” said acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.

A critic’s response: “This is yet another lost opportunity for New Jersey’s children. When coupled with the bungled Race to the Top application and the failed charter school grant process, New Jersey’s schools have been denied nearly a half-billion dollars in federal aid. The Christie Administration simply has to do a better job,” read a statement from Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s Education Committee.