N.J. Scrambles For Education Stimulus Funds

BOE_building_TLS-MediumThe New Jersey Department of Education offered a glimpse yesterday into its strategy to win up to $400 million in federal Race to the Top stimulus funds. Highlights include expanding the use of technology and student and teacher assessments to aid instruction and track progress, developing and rewarding outstanding teachers, turning around low-performing schools through support and intervention, and possibly closing those that continue to fail. Those goals – consistent with federal guidelines for the $4.35┬ábillion mega-pot of education aid – were discussed yesterday in Trenton by state education officials and close to 600 administrators, school board members, and union officials from about 200 districts.

State officials encouraged districts to pledge in writing that they would participate in the program if New Jersey received the stimulus money.

“We brought them together today because we need their support,” state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said after the meeting.

States competing for the money are scored on several criteria, including the level of local buy-in to the plan, she said.

Fifty-two percent of 500 possible points are based on states’ past performance on Race to the Top goals, including raising academic standards, increasing teacher quality, improving struggling schools, and supporting charter schools.

That criteria should increase New Jersey’s chances, Davy said.

“We think that’s something that helps New Jersey a lot,” she said, “because we believe we have an impressive record of accomplishments.”

New Jersey is racing against a looming deadline for the stimulus funds. States have until Jan. 19 to apply for the first of two rounds. While other states have been working on their proposals since the program was announced in November, New Jersey’s efforts were complicated by the gubernatorial election. A few weeks ago, a spokeswoman for Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie suggested that the Corzine administration dropped the ball, but Davy told legislators that the Christie transition team said it wanted to take charge of the process.

Either way, school districts now have a very tight time line to collect their officials’ ideas and to file memorandums of agreement to participate. The initial information packets to superintendents and the invitation to yesterday’s meeting was dated Dec. 31. Districts have until Jan. 14 to file memorandums with the state.

The New Jersey Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers and other school employees, has spoken out against Race to the Top, which supports linking teacher assessment to student performance. Yesterday, association president Barbara Keshishian slammed the state’s initial proposal.

“It’s a very complex document, and, in our opinion, it is severely flawed,” she said, “and there are numerous objectionable positions that we will not be in favor of.”

Others feel the process needs more time.

Michael Moskalski, superintendent and principal of Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mount Holly, called the state’s draft “comprehensive,” but said in an e-mail that he would rather see where the new governor stood on the proposal and then submit in the second round of applications in June.

“I have two weeks in which to discuss the draft with my association president and board of education and get their support,” wrote Moskalski, who attended yesterday’s meeting. “This is not enough time for careful consideration.”

But other districts welcomed the opportunity for additional money, even with the need to act quickly.

“At this point, it looks very attractive,” Paulsboro Superintendent Frank Scambia wrote in an e-mail. “I certainly hope that the state qualifies, and then we can also.”

A Christie spokeswoman could not be reached for comment. Philly.

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