When a clerical error seemingly costs a state $400 million in federal education funding, there are plenty of lessons to be learned.
Some of those lessons are obvious. As I learned in my very first newspaper job, you can never proofread an item too many times. Secondly, if you plan to make a bold public statement, make sure the facts are on your side, especially in today’s environment where advanced technology makes it possible to keep permanent electronic records of communications that previously were left to the frailness of the human brain.
In New Jersey, the value of each of these lessons was illustrated when the state missed qualifying for a federal Race to the Top grant in August. New Jersey lost points on its grant application by reporting budget figures for the wrong years in one section of the form. Had that question been answered correctly, the state would have had enough points to be awarded the $400 million grant. Hence, we have an expensive lesson in the value of proofreading.
As for the second lesson: First a video released by the U.S. Education Department contradicted New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s statement that the state attempted to provide the correct information after the error was discovered, but the federal agency refused to accept it. Then, after Christie fired state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler for misleading him about what had transpired, Schundler produced emails that seem to show that the information he provided to the Governor’s Office was accurate.
It will take a while to sort all of this out, and we may never know which version of what is being said is correct. The simple lesson here is to speak honestly at all times. In the real world of partisan politics, however, the lesson is to look before you leap and be cognizant of the fact that videos, emails and other electronic records – which may contradict your version of the facts – are easily retrievable today.
Bu there is an even more important lesson to be learned from this debacle – and it comes from the reaction of our public officials, Democrats as well as Republicans.
Instead of focusing on what the loss of $400 million means for education in New Jersey and how we can best move forward without the monies, the initial reaction has been “Who can we blame?”
With an error of this magnitude, it is easy to understand why people are looking for a scapegoat. And from a political perspective, the choice of scapegoats is understandable too.
Christie, a Republican, took aim at the President and the bureaucracy in Washington. “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,” he said at a news conference before the U.S. Education video was released.
Why not take aim at the Democratic President if you’re a Republican governor whose name is being bandied about as a potential national candidate? Especially with the President’s poll numbers sinking as the mid-term elections approach?
Meanwhile, New Jersey Democrats have been hammering away at Christie ever since The Star-Ledger first reported the gaffe that resulted in the state missing out on the federal funds. As subsequent events unfolded, they picked up extra ammunition and stepped up their attacks.
Again, from a political perspective, the strategy makes sense. Since he took office in January, Christie has been winning most of the partisan battles in Trenton. He also has been faring well in public opinion polls. The funding blunder provided Democrats with one of their first real opportunities to put a dent in the Governor’s armor.
Democrats, who hold majorities in both houses of the Legislature, have made it clear that they intend to keep the issue in the public spotlight. Assembly and Senate committees both plan to hold public hearings that could prove embarrassing for Christie and his administration.
But the value of the upcoming hearings should not be measured in terms of political winners and losers. Instead, the true value lies in learning what went wrong so that steps can be taken to prevent the reoccurrence of such a costly error. After all, it is the school children of New Jersey who are the real victims here, and they deserve assurances – from both Democrats and Republicans – that every possible step will be taken to prevent them from being shortchanged again.
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