Obviously, losing $400 million of federal funding in the education “Race to the Top” grant process was a major screw up that New Jersey just can’t afford. Former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler admits that he blew it in coordinating the application process and leaving or editing out vital information regarding how much New Jersey spent on public education in both 2008 and 2009.
Further, there is much speculation as to whether Schundler was less than honest with Governor Chris Christie when confronted with the screw up. Obviously there is enough blame to go around, and Governor Christie takes his share of it, including jumping the gun and attacking federal education officials based on his belief that New Jersey Department of Education officials verbally shared the 2008 and 2009 information with them.
But let’s get past blame and finger pointing in a hurry, and here’s why: Democrats in the Legislature and opponents of Chris Christie mix no blood and want to pounce because the governor has been on a roll for a long time now. But think about it—we’re not getting the $400 million to implement education reform efforts. Write that off. But what do we do now? How do we implement those much needed education reforms without the $400 million? What’s the plan? How are we going to do it on a shoestring budget? Who needs to get on board and how can we improve student performance, particularly in long-time struggling urban school systems that have under performed for decades?
New Jersey doesn’t have the luxury of engaging in political scapegoating when our kids continue to suffer. Any real advocate that is committed to improving our public schools needs to get on board this effort, which includes getting better teachers into the classroom and getting those who aren’t performing out. I want to believe even the strongest union officials who are committed to protecting teachers believe that this is the right thing to do.
In addition, the state of New Jersey must do all it can to provide better options for parents in urban areas who feel that their “choice” among several failing urban schools is no choice at all. The irony is that some New Jersey public school systems are excellent—even extraordinary—while others lag way behind. That disparity must end. The gap must be closed. Arguing and debating any longer about why New Jersey lost the $400 million in the “Race to the Top” isn’t going to help us in any of these areas. In fact, it will take precious time, resources and energy away from those efforts, and create needless division and conflict which, again, our public school students can ill-afford.
The Legislature is holding a hearing in which they clearly will ask some tough questions. Yet, my concern is that their greatest objective is to try to embarrass the Christie Administration, which may make sense politically, but doesn’t help the education reform effort a whole lot. This debacle will be a case study to be analyzed for years to come on how not to handle a complex grant application. Further, we need to find out exactly why a private consultant was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor the grant application process but somehow didn’t pick up this very expensive mistake.
Simply put, this is one of the most expensive, bureaucratic goof ups you will ever see. It’s painful to think of New Jersey’s “Race to the Top” application coming up just a few points short of getting into the top 10 and reaping the $400 million. It’s even worse to think that those points were lost because of what seems to be a simple clerical and administrative error. But as I said, what’s done is done. The milk has been spilled. We can cry about it all we want, but it isn’t going to clean up the mess or move us forward. Let’s stop the name calling and blaming and get on with the serious business of improving and reforming our public schools. Do we really have any other option?