The Christie administration submitted its application for federal Race to the Top aid Tuesday but - on the governor's orders - removed key compromises reached with the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
Last week, state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and NJEA officials announced that an agreement had been reached and that the union would support the state's bid for up to $400 million in education stimulus funds. The compromises involved merit pay - the union is against it, Gov. Christie is for it - and other issues.
Some of the issues on which compromises were reached last week had led the union to withhold support from the state's first Race to the Top application, which failed to secure federal funds.
The Christie administration was critical of the union's failure to support the state's first application, saying the lack of union buy-in hurt the state's prospects. Federal application evaluators noted the application's lack of labor support.
On Tuesday, however, the deadline for submitting the second-round application, Christie announced that he had instructed Schundler on Friday to restore the former provisions after learning about the deal his education chief had helped broker with the NJEA.
Christie said changing the application made it closer to his principles and the goals of the Obama administration, including support for steps such as merit pay.
"It's the Obama administration that decides who gets the money, not the teachers union," Christie said.
In details of the application released Tuesday, merit pay was back in. In addition, it calls for tying student performance to teacher evaluation and having teacher effectiveness replace seniority as the main factor in determining which teachers are laid off in times of cutbacks.
Under the plan, it would be easier to terminate bad teachers, while effective teachers and principals would get incentives to work at underperforming schools.
To bolster the state's case, the governor's press office put out a release listing other states that have taken some of the same measures that New Jersey's application calls for as part of a national reform movement.
In the cover letter that accompanied the application, Christie wrote that he was so committed to the initiatives in the document, "I decided that they should not be compromised to achieve a contrived consensus among the various affected special interest groups."
At a news briefing Tuesday, Christie questioned why the union would not support the changed application. But, he said, "If they're not going to sign it, I don't want their support."
Union officials, however, said Schundler had told them Tuesday that he had withdrawn their expressions of support after the application was changed.
State Education Department spokesman Alan Guenther said 502 of the state's approximately 600 districts had signed onto the state's application, including about 400 local union presidents.
Many signed on after the compromises were announced last week and the union reached out to members to support the application. On merit pay, for example, as of late last week, education officials had backed down somewhat. Instead, the sides agreed to reward achieving or improving schools with additional funds. Christie rejected it.
A written statement released Tuesday quoted Schundler as saying, "It is critical that we continue to implement good ideas, regardless of special interests, if we are going to improve the quality of the education we provide our children."
The Legislature's Democratic leaders and union officials criticized Christie on Tuesday and said his action would jeopardize the state's second bid to get the money.
"Instead of supporting the application agreed to by his Commissioner and staff, Gov. Christie has decided to submit his own application, and to unilaterally remove the support of NJEA and hundreds of its local presidents from it," NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said in a written statement.
Both the Senate and the Assembly had endorsed the state's second attempt to win the funding.
The Race to the Top application process is highly competitive, and the money is aimed at fostering and rewarding innovation. In the first funding round, New Jersey was among 40 states and the District of Columbia that applied. Only two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were chosen. New Jersey came in 18th.