I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, August 27, 2010

disgRace To The Top

The spin was fast and furious yesterday in the aftermath of the Christie Administration's debacle of losing out on $400 million dollars in Race To The Top funds. But, as is all too typical, the real story was lost in the blizzard of accusations and blame.

Chris Christie insisted on changes to the RTTT application - changes that led to the costly error - because of the rantings of a radio personality. By any objective reading, the changes were deliberate and were made to obscure the reality of Christie's cuts to education.

In other words: Christie lost the RTTT funds because he insisted on using the application as a political tool. Contrary to what some opinion brokers may have us believe, this was solely and completely the governor's fault, and it reflects on his twisted priority of putting politics before the children of our state.

A review of the events is in order:

This past spring, the teachers union negotiated, in good faith, an agreement with Education Commissioner Bret Schundler that produced an RTTT application that both sides could agree on. But radio personality Jim Gearhart of NJ 101.5 - a consistent critic of the NJEA ("New Jersey Extortion Association" is his idea of wit) - objected to the deal and blasted Christie publicly. This prompted Christie to immediately denounce the deal, embarrass Schundler, and order a hasty rewrite of the application without the consent of the NJEA.

There's little doubt that Gearhart's rant was the impetus for Christie's reneging on the deal; he went on Gearhart's show immediately afterward and apologized for making the original deal with the union. Nor is there any doubt Christie himself insisted on rewriting the application: he publicly embarrassed Schundler and thoroughly distanced himself from the original application.

The NJEA has released the original application, and it's clear the error was created during the hurried rewrite by Christie's staff over the Memorial Day weekend. But it's wrong to describe the error as "clerical": this wasn't the case of putting an answer in the wrong place on the form.

As dennismcgrath at Blue Jersey has shown, the error is unquestionably deliberate. The original text from the application agreed to by the NJEA and Schundler is nowhere to be found in the final version, and the incorrect answer from the new text is nowhere to be found in the NJEA draft. This was not a cut-and-paste mistake.

Comparing the two answers makes clear why Christie insisted the original, correct answer be changed. Here's the question on the application:
Q: The extent to which— (i) The percentage of the total revenues available to the State (as defined in this notice) that were used to support elementary, secondary, and public higher education for FY 2009 was greater than or equal to the percentage of the total revenues available to the State (as defined in this notice) that were used to support elementary, secondary, and public higher education for FY 2008
This is a technical question designed to gauge what Rutgers professor Bruce Baker calls "essential preconditions." Here's the original, correct answer:
New Jersey increased its state percentage of spending on education from 36.9% in 2008 to 39.6% in 2009. In 2010, despite huge budget shortfalls, the Governor increased the education budget by 2.4%. ($238 million.) The New Jersey legislature remains committed to funding education even though almost every other area of state spending has been cut. Education appropriations for the 2011 budget show an overall decrease of 7.7% because of the impact of the one-time ARRA funds used to support the state. Despite severe fiscal challenges, the leadership in the state of New Jersey remains committed to education and has demonstrated it in their funding of the 2011 proposed budget. (emphasis mine)
And here's the new, incorrect answer:
In fiscal year 2011, despite huge budget strains, the Governor is proposing an increase in state revenue-based support for education by 2.2% ($238 million). As proposed, preschool-12 education spending as a percentage of the state budget will be 35.4%. Federal ARRA funding will not be available to school districts in FY 2011, but the Governor and the executive team remain committed to funding education even as state revenue-based support for most other areas of state spending has been cut. This demonstrates that, despite severe fiscal challenges, the leadership in the state of New Jersey remains committed to education. (emphasis mine)
Notice the change? The correct answer shows a pattern of increases disrupted by a decrease. The incorrect answer shows no such pattern. Further, the correct answer refers to the size of the budget, while the incorrect answer refers to the size of "state revenue-based support," omitting the federal stimulus funds NJ has used up.

In an Orwellian twist, Christie actually uses this answer as a chance to paint himself as a leader who is increasing educational spending - this depsite the fact that he has spent the past year slashing $1.3 billion dollars from school district budgets.

(It's worth pointing out that Christie's total cuts in K-12 education this past year equaled $1.3 billion. Even if the $1 billion in ARRA stimulus funds Jon Corzine used to stabilize state aid in 2009 had been divided between evenly 2009 and 2010, Christie would still have presided over an education cut of $800 million.)

And yet, in spite of all this, many in the media insist that there is blame to go around. Bob Braun at the Star-Ledger, for example, quotes Joseph DePierro, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Seton Hall University :
"Both the governor and the NJEA need to accept responsibility for the outcome."
Some continue to insist, despite the evidence, that this was an innocuous "clerical" error, but the NJEA still bears responsibility, like Al Doblin at the Record:
A clerical error on past school funding cost the state five points.... The state may have gained the lost five points if the NJEA-approved version had been submitted, assuming the clerical error did not originate in that version, but would have lost points in other places. 
Further, a quick survey of the reporting - The NY Times, The Star-Ledger, The Courier Post, The Record - shows that the Gearhart connection has disappeared from the narrative. The question of why Christie made this sudden u-turn is not even broached, let alone answered.

And now we have video that flies in direct contradiction to Christie's attempts to deflect blame off of himself and on to the Obama administration. All evidence suggests that he himself is to blame for this mess, and his motivation was purely political.

There are three important lessons to be learned here:

1) Chris Christie, like almost every other Republican these days, is a slave to his talk-radio-lovin', tea-gulpin' base. If a radio DJ tells him to do something, he'll do it, even if it means embarrassing his staff and breaking his word.

2) Chris Christie will always put his own political ends above policy - even policy he espouses. He will sell out the children of this state to tell a pleasing story about himself, even when that story is nothing more than a twisting of the facts.

3) In the face of overwhelming evidence of Christie's craven pandering and cowardice, the NJ media will continue to portray him as an honest actor, no better or worse than his opponents. No matter how poorly he behaves; no matter how gutless his positions; no matter what self-serving portraits he paints of himself with rose-colored facts: the media will never make him out to be any worse than those who stand in opposition to him.

In summary - we've seen this before, and this results are sure to be the same:

I'm the decider!

ADDING: To be clear: it is my opinion, as a professional educator, that Race To The Top is a terrible idea and we are better off without it.


Nick Lento said...

Now we just have to get the Democratic legislature to investigate and get people to tell the truth under oath.

If your theory is correct, Christie should be impeached post haste.

Duke said...

He should certainly be held to account. We need this senate investigation.

Thanks for posting.