The Economics of Education, The Politics of “Clerical Error”

Special Contribution By J.G. Negraval

Over the past week there has been an ongoing debate about the recent debacle orchestrated by the Christie administration in regard to to the “Race to the Top Funding”.

Last week, New Jersey lost in its bid to gain over $400 million in funding for education programs due to a “clerical” error that occurred when officials realized they were missing crucial budget data for the 2008-2009 school year. Many states from around the country competed in the application process that awarded points to each state’s presentation based on a pre-set criteria. New Jersey lost by a mere 3 points. How is this possible?

The answer is simple. The Christie Administration wanted it that way.

Anyone that has been following New Jersey politics understands how our system works. Calculated political maneuvers are well framed in advance as the political bosses on both sides of the aisle move people and resources into place to control key votes and constituencies. Nothing is done haphazardly and political ramifications are routinely checked and double checked.

It just so happened that this time, Chris Christie found himself on the side of the Obama Administration with their Race to the Top funding plan. The state had to apply. It was too great an opportunity to pass up. RTT was designed to increase accountability for teachers and principals, introduce longitudinal testing (testing that tracks students over a period of time), and reward educational systems that work. Christie was in favor. It was another way to “stick it” to the NJEA teachers’ union, which from the start wanted clearer guidelines for testing students and ultimately would not sign the final package.

The ultimate problem came when the state had to demonstrate they were committed to funding public education, a key requirement for the application. Having gutted funding for schools by $800 million last year, the Christie administration had publicly declared their non-support for schools. The Christie administration knew that the hack job they had carried out the year before would have been a red-flag to reviewers.

The resulting fall-out that would have occurred when it became known that slashing the school budgets would have looked rather suspicious to any reviewer, was too harsh. So, the decision was made. Take the fall on the clerical error, fire commissioner Brett Schundler and ride out a more manageable mess. After all, no one reads the papers during the summer anyway. A win-win for Christie who was unhappy with Brett Schunder from the start over disagreements the two had over funding last Spring.

The most insulting part is the clerical error story. Clerical Error? Not likely. The Christie Administration signed off on the final package. When there is $400 million at stake, things like this don’t just “slip by”. It’s an easy argument, and one in which Christie was willing to take the fall for. It was far better to admit a clerical error than to expose the administration’s lack of support for public education in New Jersey. This argument was also destroyed by the recently released video tape showing NJ officials floundering in front of the review board as they searched for the data that was no where to be found. It was never there to begin with and they wanted it that way.

Could this be partisan politics? Many media blowhards like the Jersey Guys, on Millennium radio, have questioned whether or not the Obama administration simply did not want to award $400 million to a political foe. This is also not likely as Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, a leading democrat, was snubbed by the feds as well.

So in the end, who’s to blame? Quite frankly, both the Christie Administration and the NJEA. The fact that the NJEA wasn’t going to support a plan that spoke in such vague generalizations about merit pay was no surprise, however if they had agreed, the state would have had more than enough points to win. The NJEA has routinely stated why they didn’t support the application and their refusal was taken into account.

Yet, the bigger, and ultimately costlier blame has to fall on the Christie Administration which was not willing to admit that their knee-jerk, budget slashing had ultimately destroyed the state’s chances. After all, why would the feds give $400 million to a Governor who clearly doesn’t support public education?

Damn those clerical errors (and bad incentives)!

J.G. Negraval is a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University.

Special thanks to S.C. for helping to sort some of this out.

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7 Responses

  1. i hate that politics plays such a role in educating children; they are essentially our future and those that will take care of us when we are old.
    i actually saw the video of this where NJ was given a chance to correct the mistake and then when asked about it Schundler just sat there looking like an idiot. it was pathetic. couldn’t you at least pretend harder? i mean its children’s futures at stake here.

  2. This will become a textbook case study a few years from now. Just terrible.

  3. this is the reason my kids will never go to public school

  4. Fourth paragraph: “aisle”, not “isle”.

    Fifth paragraph: “principals”, not “principles”.

  5. If Christie`s lying, he`s very good at it (possible).

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