Sorting Out New Jersey's Stumble in 'Race to the Top'

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First, this week New Jersey got the bad news that it lost its bid to win $400 million in federal education aid from the Obama administration's highly competitive Race to the Top program. Then the Star-Ledger reported that the state's grant application had failed, in part, because of a clerical error made by a mid-level state staffer.

By mid-week Gov. Chris Christie was railing against inflexible Washington bureaucrats who wouldn't let the state amend its application. Fast forward to today, when Christie fired Education Commissioner Bret Schundler. WNYC's Bob Hennelly sorts out New Jersey's stumbles in the Race to the Top -- and the messy aftermath.

So lets start with the latest news. Mid-week, Governor Chrsitie was standing 100 percent behind Education Commissioner Schundler and blasting the Obama administration. What happened?

There are now two competing narratives on this that are already out there. We have Governor Christie, basically saying that he has discharged Commissioner Schundler because Schundler told him that at a meeting that was held, where the state got to walk through its presentation with federal officials, Schundler attempted to try to amend the record and correct this little clerical error. And so then Christie basically went out and blasted the Obama administration the next day, based on the representations Christie says he got from Schundler.

And we should just say here, for listeners who don't know -- this clerical error was that federal officials had asked for budget numbers from 2008-2009.

And the state supplied 2011, right. A comprehension issue. And so what ended up happening was that yesterday, federal people released a video tape of that exact meeting, where Schundler fumbles for an answer, and none of his entourage is able to produce an answer, to a direct question from one of the federal grant panelists. At this point, with that information, Christie says he discharged Schundler. Now, Schundler has said subsequently to the Associated Press and to other outlets, that it was the governor who misinterpreted the facts and that he never represented that he tried to offer an answer in real time. So there you have it. As it is right now though, Schundler's looking for a job, and now he's saying that he asked to be fired so that he could get unemployment benefits because he's got a kid starting college and a mortgage to pay.

Just very briefly, let's talk about Schundler himself. When Christie appointed him earlier this year, I think it was widely seen as an opening salvo against the teachers' union, which actually opposed the Race to the Top application, right?

Well, what's fascinating here is that Schundler was a conservative and critic of the teachers' union before it was politically safe to be so, going back decades. He was also the Republican mayor in the Democratic enclave of Jersey City. And one of the things that's curious is that, back in the spring, there was kind of a foreshadowing of this fallout between Christie and Schundler, because Schundler had actually managed to get the NJEA -- the education association, like New Jersey's UFT -- to sign off on the $400 million application by Race to the Top by making some concessions on things that the Christie administration had been pushing for. And as a result, though, Christie totally nixed that in public, and once the terms of it came out, he disowned the work of his own education commissioner. And so that kind of set the stage for what we have right now.

And if that hadn't happened -- the points that they could have gotten on that application for having the teachers' union on board?

Right, that's the big point here, is that having the teachers' union on board was critical to the success of this application. The states that managed to get that common ground with their teachers' unions had a much more successful application and these minor points that they lost because of this clerical error would have been dwarfed by the double-digit points they would have gotten, had they been able to successfully bring the teachers on board.

How big a hit politically is this for Governor Christie?

It's tough, because he has said that competency is a core part of the Chris Christie message, and so this is something where it really put him in a tough spot, because he's been very combative, so you have to be right on the facts.