HADDONFIELD - New Jersey was shut out of a major federal grant that could have provided up to $400 million to jump-start changes to the education system, officials learned Tuesday.

According to a Star-Ledger report, an application error caused the Garden State to miss out on funding.

New Jersey missed "Reach for the Top" funding by three points - after officials with Christie's department submitted incorrect budget information comparing the 2008 and 2009 school years, the mistake costing the state 4.8 points, according to the report.

Nine states and the District of Columbia were awarded grants in the second round of the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant program, which is designed to spur innovation in public education.

New Jersey was among the 19 finalists for the grant.

"Our commitment to bold, meaningful reform remains firm," Education Commissioner Bret Schundler said in a statement. "This process has allowed us to move quickly and vigorously to craft much-needed education reforms, while securing the unanimous, bipartisan support of the Legislature for the plan embodied in our Race to the Top application."

The state proposed paying teachers based partly on how well their students perform on tests, rewarding top teachers for transferring to struggling schools, making it harder for teachers to attain lifetime tenure, and upgrading a computer system so education results could be tracked more accurately.

By measures including graduation rates and scores on some standardized tests, New Jersey has one of the highest-performing education systems in the country, on average. But it has been wrestling for decades with how to get the same results in impoverished cities that it gets in the suburbs.

Some of the ideas in the grant application represent first-year Republican Gov. Chris Christie's approach to that dilemma.

The grant application was wrapped in political intrigue.

In the days leading up to its June 1 submission, Schundler got the New Jersey Education Association to sign onto the plan. He made a big compromise to do it: Instead of giving teachers bonuses if their students improved on standardized tests, entire schools would be rewarded. It would be up to the school staff to decide whether to award some of the money as bonuses, or to use it all to schoolwide projects like upgrading the library.

The teachers union said that idea was better because it would foster cooperation rather than competition among teachers within a school.

But Christie, who clashes constantly with the teachers union, nixed his education commissioner's compromise and submitted the grant application without union support.

NJEA spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner suggested Christie's reversal was a reason New Jersey didn't get the grant.

"He basically hijacked the whole process for his own political purposes," she said.

Marie Bilik, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said she hoped the changes called for in the state's grant application would move forward even without the infusion of federal money.

The NJEA's Hiltner was resigned to the notion that they would.

"I think the governor has an agenda and I think he's going to try to do what he wants to do," she said, "whether or not it's common sense."

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