The Christie administration said Monday that New Jersey's failure to win a federal grant for charter school start-ups was the fault of a weak and understaffed state charter operation it inherited from Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

Democratic leaders criticized Gov. Christie last week after the state's failed bid for $14 million in education funds was made public by The Inquirer.

New Jersey's low-scoring application - combined with the Christie administration's unsuccessful effort to secure a $400 million federal Race to the Top education grant - indicates that education is not a priority for the governor, the lawmakers charged.

When asked about losing the grant, Christie spokesmen initially cited the governor's support of school choice and said efforts were being made to strengthen the charter program. The state plans to reapply for the grant, probably in the spring, according to state officials.

A week later, the administration ramped up its defense and blamed Christie's Democratic predecessor.

"We inherited an office [of charter schools] that was decimated," state education spokesman Alan Guenther said Monday.

The Corzine administration lost about $17 million in federal charter aid, Guenther said.

In 2009, during Corzine's tenure, New Jersey's application for about $13 million from the same start-up aid program was rejected, he said. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that the application was denied.

In 2008-09, Guenther said, the state also was denied almost $4 million it was to have received in the third payout of a 2006 grant that would have totaled more than $10 million.

The reason, Guenther said, was that federal program officials said New Jersey was not opening enough charters or spending the money it was given fast enough.

New Jersey got only $100 that year, according to state records.

The state was awarded charter start-up grants, which usually cover three-year periods, three times before 2006. The federal program was launched in the mid-1990s.

Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D., Middlesex) said again Monday that he wants acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks to speak to his committee about what went wrong with the state's application.

Hendricks was asked to appear Thursday but may not be available, Diegnan said.

New Jersey received 61.3 percent of the possible points on its losing grant application. The 12 states that won grants scored between 67 percent and 85.7 percent. The state lost points in every category, including those about its charter management and monitoring plans.

It is "unacceptable" to blame the previous administration for this year's failure, Diegnan said. The state learned over the summer that it had lost out on the charter money.

"It's getting a little old at this point to continue to blame the Corzine administration for everything that goes wrong for the Christie administration," he said.

Diegnan said he read the comments of the application's peer reviewers and found their references to basic lacks in the application "disturbing." The administration should have learned from the unsuccessful 2009 application, he said.

"Clearly, the ball was dropped," Diegnan said.

Guenther said that the state charter school office was woefully undermanned when Christie became governor. "The level of neglect . . . was profound," he said.

In 2001, the office had a staff of 16 to administer 45 schools, Guenther said. When Christie took over, he said, four staff members oversaw 67 schools.

A fifth person recently was hired for the charter office, and about a half-dozen other employees have pitched in to help handle the workload for what is now 73 schools, he said.

The Education Department has requested that the National Association of Charter School Authorizers do a study, now under way, on how the state can improve its charter program, Guenther said. The state is also working on creating a mentoring project to help new and existing charters.

"We will continue to improve and upgrade the office," he said.

Had the grant application been successful, the money would have benefited some of the record 50 charter schools seeking state approval next month. Typically in New Jersey, new charters have received about $150,000 in start-up money from the federal grant program.

The state will use about $148,000 left from its previous grant to help newly opening charters that have already been approved, said Guenther and other New Jersey education officials. The seven schools each will get about $20,000, Guenther said.

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com.