Teacher Unions Cost NJ 'Race To The Top' Funds

The simmering battle between New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Democrats in the legislature threatened to flare back up last week over the Obama Administration’s rejection of the state’s “Race to the Top” application. 

The Department of Education ranked New Jersey’s application 11th best, just three points behind tenth place Ohio, keeping the state from securing $400 million dollars in federal education funding. 

Democrats and their allies in the state teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), have been critical of Christie for an error in the state’s application that cost New Jersey 4.8 out of a possible 5 points and would have put New Jersey in tenth place. Assembly Democrats convened a hearing this week to examine the error.

Christie acknowledged late last month that the state’s application failed to provide the required information for one question, citing the percentage increase in state education funding for 2011 instead of the percentage increase from 2008 to 2009. Christie was critical of the Obama Administration, rhetorically asking whether federal education officials were “checking boxes like mindless drones.” Christie also stated that education commissioner Bret Schundler had provided reviewers with the required figures during an in-person presentation to the Education Department.

When the Education Department released video of the presentation showing that Schundler did not, in fact, have the information ready for reviewers and did not present it, Christie asked for his resignation. Schundler was eventually fired after refusing to resign. Remarking to aides on the firing, Christie reportedly said, “[Schundler] can’t lie to me.”

Sensing an opportunity to turn the tables on Christie and his growing popularity, Democrats called for a hearing on the error. Schundler did not appear, and Christie refused to send his top aides.

In her opening statement, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nellie Pou (D) said that the hearing was not a “witch hunt.” “Today’s hearing is about determining exactly what happened throughout the development and submission of this application,” Pou said. “It is not about being able to point our fingers. Rather, it’s about being able to understand the mistakes that were made so that we can develop the safeguards to ensure it does not happen again.”

Republicans pushed back, focusing attention on the lack of support from the NJEA as the potential reason why the application was ultimately denied. Assemblyman Alex DeCroce (R) released a strongly worded statement on the hearing, pointing out that had the union supported the application, New Jersey would have been awarded the funding despite the error.

“Despite what Assembly Democrats would like the public to believe, today’s hearing was nothing more than a political witch-hunt. The fact that their sole focus at the hearing was only on the application error demonstrates they were never interested in examining all the factors in the “Race to the Top” application,” DeCroce said. “Their goal was only to discredit Governor Christie—nothing else. Never did they address the fact that New Jersey lost more points on its application because of the New Jersey Education Association’s lack of support. That was a critical deficiency in our application.”

On its website, the NJEA admits that the application was hampered by the lack of union support, but lays the blame at Christie’s feet. “A few extra points—such as the points that would have been available by collaborating with NJEA and other stakeholders—may have made the difference between walking away with $400 million and walking away with nothing,” the statement says. “Now, the big question being asked around the Garden State is, did Gov. Christie just cost New Jersey $400 million in desperately needed education dollars?”

But an analysis of Colorado’s failed application by the Public Education and Business Coalition, a local education advocacy organization, shows that New Jersey Republicans may have a point. Colorado lost as many as 27 points for “flat achievement indicators and for little union buy-in,” according to the report. The analysis indicates that New Jersey’s application may have been doomed from the start by the union’s decision to withhold its support.

Christie and the NJEA have been doing battle almost from the first day of his administration. With the state budget tightening, the NJEA and Democrats are seeking to make political hay out of the loss of critical education funding for New Jersey’s students. The latest Rasmussen Reports survey shows Christie’s job approval rating increasing to 57%, demonstrating that his image has not been hurt by the firestorm of criticism.  On the contrary, should the NJEA’s outsized role in New Jersey’s “Race to the Top” loss become more widely known, the union could be chalking up another in a lengthening string of losses to Christie.