December 13, 2012 at 6:30 AM, updated December 13, 2012 at 6:32 AM
What passes for educational reform in New Jersey has relied heavily on private foundation money — millions from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, among others — and a common complaint of critics is that the public is rarely made aware of the conditions of those grants. One recent grant from a California-based foundation includes this unusual stipulation: Gov. Chris Christie must stay in office in New Jersey.
“That’s astonishing,” says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark and a frequent critic of the Christie administration’s policies. “It is highly unusual, maybe precedent-setting — to require that an elected official remain in office as a condition for a grant.”
Sciarra, whose organization forced the disclosure of the terms of the grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, has called for an independent review of the $430,000 award. It was Sciarra who gave The Star-Ledger a copy of the grant papers.
“Some independent body, the Legislature or the state comptroller’s office, should look into the entire relationship between the Broad foundation and the state,” Sciarra says, adding that the requirement of Christie’s continued presence — negotiated while the governor was considered a presidential or vice presidential contender last spring — was not the only problem with the grant.
Christie’s office would not comment and referred all questions to the state education department, where spokeswoman Barbara Morgan dismissed the concern because, she said, all the funds from the grant would be paid out before next year’s election.
Morgan, who conceded governors leave office for reasons other than elections, also said the provision was appropriate because “It is his administration receiving the grant.”
A spokeswoman for the foundation had a different take. In an e-mail, Erica Lepping, its senior communications director, wrote:
“Research shows that American school systems making the greatest academic gains have certain ingredients in place, including strong leaders who champion strategies that are designed to create environments that support students and teachers, so we consider the presence of strong leaders to be important when we hand over our dollars.
“Of course the longevity of a governor is entirely up to a state.”
The Broad foundation has extensive links to New Jersey. It runs an academy that trains educators who have been hired in New Jersey — including Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf. It also provided $1.5 million in grants for education reform in a program channeled through the Council of Chief State School Officers, a national organization.
Other curious provisions include “benchmarks” that appear to commit the state to pursue certain policies, some of which are controversial. For example, at a time when the Legislature is reviewing the state’s approach to charter schools, one benchmark reads:
“The percent of high quality public charter schools in New Jersey, as measured by NJDOE’s” — New Jersey Department of Education’s — “definition of high quality, will increase by 50 (percent) by 2014-15.”
Sciarra says he takes this to mean the state agreed to increase the number of charter schools by 50 percent. Morgan and Lepping say it means only that the number of existing charter schools considered to be of “high quality” will increase by half.
“It says what it says,” says Sciarra. “It is a foundation driving public educational policy that should be set by the Legislature.”
Some provisions in the grant suggest the Broad foundation — referred to in the document as “TBF” — wants to stay out of the public eye as much as possible. In the document’s language, the state education department is referred to as the “Grantee.”
“TBF reserves the right not to be included in Grantee’s publicity,” reads one provision that also requires that “all public announcements of this grant by Grantee, including without limitation, oral, print, electronic or other announcements, must be coordinated with TBF. Grantee must contact the Senior Director of Communications on TBF’s staff to obtain and obtain approval of Grantee’s plans.”
It also contains a long provision related to “confidentiality” and contends that “all records, files, drawings, documents, equipment and other tangible items, wherever located, relating in any way to the Confidential Material or otherwise to TBF’s business that Grantee Parties prepare, use or encounter will be and remain TBF’s sole and exclusive property.”
If the state is legally required to make any of these materials public — either through subpoenas or other legal process — it must give the foundation advance notice of such disclosure “so that TBF may contest the disclosure and or/seek a protective order.”
Lepping says this is not aimed at keeping the foundation’s relationship with the state a secret. She says the confidentiality provision is limited to a “small subset” of files that may contain personal information. She says the foundation is committed to “transparency.”
Sciarra disagrees. “This grant was negotiated in private and approved by the state without the release of its terms and conditions. The state only made it public because it was forced to under the Open Public Records Act.”