In honor of his keynote speech Tuesday night, I thought I’d recount a revealing story about New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from my new book, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era. If you think of Christie as a disingenuous blowhard who’s more interested in picking political fights than improving public policy, well, this tale probably won’t change your opinion.
The story involves President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative, which has been hailed by Republicans like Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels as a groundbreaking advance for public schools. It encourages states to promote charter schools, use student test scores to evaluate teachers, and adopt other reforms that traditionally Democratic unions had always opposed. Christie’s education commissioner, a well-known conservative reformer named Bret Schundler, avidly pursued a Race to the Top grant for New Jersey. “I was extremely excited,” Schundler said later. “It was an opportunity for tremendous bipartisan cooperation.”
In the summer of 2010, when the Obama Administration announced some winners of Race to the Top grants, New Jersey barely missed the cut, in part because its application was docked a few points for incorrect budget information. In typically overstated fashion, Christie held a news conference to blast the Administration for playing politics. He claimed his education aides had tried to submit the correct information during a meeting with the Education Department in Washington, but federal reviewers had refused to accept it. “That’s the stuff that drives people nuts about government,” Christie told the press.
In fact, the budget error was not the main problem with New Jersey’s application. The state lost many more points because it lacked buy-in from its teachers unions, which was entirely Christie’s fault. Schundler had worked out a deal with the unions to support New Jersey’s reform plans, winning concessions that would have made it easier to reward good teachers and fire bad ones. But at the last minute Christie scuttled the deal, complaining that it didn’t go far enough.
Still, Christie’s allegations about the Education Department interview were potentially explosive. They were also bogus. A videotape of the meeting proved that Christie’s aides never tried to correct their error. Christie, forced to find a new scapegoat, fired Schundler. “Thank God we taped it,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me. “When you play it straight, things usually work out in the end.”
And sometimes when you don’t play it straight, you get to give a keynote address.