Broad Foundation Stipulation for New Jersey Education Grant Raises Concerns

Criticism of state officials in New Jersey for accepting private foundation money to finance public education reform without informing the public of the conditions included in such grants has been reignited by the revelation that a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is contingent on Governor Chris Christie staying in office, the Star-Ledger reports.

According to the Star-Ledger, the Education Law Center in Newark, which forced disclosure of the terms of the $430,000 grant awarded by the California-based foundation to the New Jersey department of education, has called for an independent review of the relationship between the foundation and the state. State education department spokesperson Barbara Morgan dismissed the organization's concerns on the grounds that all the funds from the grant will be paid out before the next New Jersey gubernatorial election. Morgan also noted that while a governor may leave office for other reasons, the provision in the grant was appropriate because "[i]t is his administration receiving the grant."

Broad Foundation senior communications director Erica Lepping also defended the terms of the grant. "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," Lepping told the Star-Ledger. "Of course the longevity of a governor is entirely up to a state."

The controversy extends beyond the foundation's ties to Christie to the influence that private funders — especially those who support aggressive reform measures and charter school expansion — increasingly wield over education policy at the state level. When the New Jersey board of education approved the grant last June, for example, NJ Spotlight reported that $290,000 of the $430,000 would fund the training of staff for the Christie administration's planned Regional Achievement Centers, while the remainder would be used to bolster the state's oversight of charter schools — "the first time in recent memory," the Spotlight noted, "that outside foundations have paid the state directly and played so overtly a role in helping develop statewide policy."

According to the Star-Ledger, while the legislature is reviewing the state's approach to charter schools, the provisions of the grant appear to commit the state to certain policies, including an increase in the "percent of high quality public charter schools in New Jersey, as measured by [the New Jersey Department of Education's] definition of high quality...by 50 (percent) by 2014-15." David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and a frequent critic of Christie administration policies, said 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," said Sciarra. "It is a foundation driving public educational policy that should be set by the legislature."