New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blasted bureaucrats in Washington for allowing a single mistake on a 1,000-page application to possibly cost the state Race to the Top education grants worth $400 million.
The Race to the Top grants were awarded to nine states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday. New Jersey was the top runner-up, having missed out on an award by just a few points on the 500-point scale used to judge the applications.
New Jersey lost five points on one section in which officials were asked to show that the state gives a consistent percentage of its revenue to education. The application called for using data from 2008 and 2009 to make the case. New Jersey used figures from the 2010 and 2011 state budgets.
It's not certain that the state would have aced the section if the right numbers had been used -- but it definitely would have done better.
State Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat, called it "a stunning mistake that is going to hurt New Jersey's children."
Christie said the "clerical error" could have easily been fixed if someone in Washington had picked up the phone.
"That's the stuff that drives people nuts about government and that's the stuff the Obama administration should answer for. Are you guys just down there checking boxes like mindless drones, or are you thinking?" he said.
"When the president comes back to New Jersey, he's going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he's depriving them of $400 million that this application earned because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldn't pick up the phone and ask a question, couldn't go on the Internet and find information, or wouldn't accept the verbal representation" of the state's education commissioner during a follow-up interview, Christie said.
But the governor's critics said he has no one to blame but himself.
The state's teachers association, which has been in a fight with Christie for months over his decision to have teachers pay a fraction of their health care costs, said regardless of the complaints, it's the governor's administration that made the error before it submitted the application on June 1.
Dawn Hiltner, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association who worked on the committee to develop the application, led by Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, said an earlier draft included budget data from the right years.
But before that application was submitted, Christie said he wouldn't abide by compromises to the union that dealt with how merit pay for teachers would work. He then submitted a different final product that included the wrong yearly data.
"New Jersey's failure to win Race to the Top funding is a direct result of Gov. Christie's misguided decision to hijack the grant application process for his own political purposes," said New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian.
"He made it clear in June that he was not interested in the input of professional educators in the application process, and he insisted that he knew best what it takes to win this grant. He now owes the people of New Jersey an explanation for why his application failed. And he owes students and taxpayers an apology for undermining a process that could have brought much-needed resources and genuine reform to our state's public schools," she said.
The lack of the union's endorsement cost the state 14 points on the scale. But Christie said the section of the application involving the teachers unions was 23 points higher than a submission in January for an earlier grant that had earned union backing.
"If the teachers union had supported meaningful reforms in this state, we wouldn't be having to have this conversation about a one-sheet piece of paper and 4.8 points because we would've gotten 14 points for the NJEA endorsement and we would have been way over the top and not at number 11," he said.
The state appealed to the Department of Education to receive some of the remaining $100 million in funds left over in the $3.3 billion pot used for the grants, but the request appears not to have earned sympathy.
"We appreciate the governor's leadership on education reform," Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, told the Newark Star-Ledger. "We have no plans to deviate from our process."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.