This Thursday, ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf will have his long-delayed confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Here are five questions they should force him to answer (really answer, not dance around):
1) What are the exact circumstances of the Edison stock deal Cerf made using money from the Florida teachers pensions, and why did Cerf continue to hold the stock even after he took a job at the NYC DOE?
Cerf put together a sweetheart deal for himself when his old company, Edison Learning, turned into an educational and fiscal disaster on his watch. That deal was paid for with funds from Florida's teachers, over their objections. And Cerf held the stock after he starting working for the NYC Education Department; he divested just before a parents group was going to out him. The investigation into his conflict of interest found he had violated the law, but the report was heavily redacted when it was released to the public.
Cerf needs to come clean, once and for all, about exactly what happened.
2) Why is there so much secrecy and cronyism surrounding the reorganization of Newark's schools?
Cerf's old firm, Global Education Advisers, got a half-a-million dollar fee to engineer a secret report that reorganized Newark's schools (with no community input). The money was provided by a LA billionaire, Eli Broad, who also paid for Cerf to attend his "superintendent's academy," an unaccredited program that teaches school leaders to bring corporate practices to education. Cerf changed his story when confronted about his role in this deal. Reports allege Cerf's family may have been involved. Nearly one-third of the Zuckerberg-Facebook donation already spent has gone to associates of Cerf's. Another associate got Broad money to reorganize the NJ DOE.
The citizens of Newark are left wondering why there are such radical changes in their schools - including a $150 million complex that will house both charter schools and teachers' apartments together - guided by outsiders, with little to no community control.
3) Why is there so little transparency and community involvement in the approval process for charter schools?
The names of charter application reviewers were kept secret in earlier rounds; it turns out the reviewers had little experience in running schools. DOE officials reportedly said they would "go to the mat" to protect the names of the reviewers. Subsequent rounds also featured reviewers light on experience. The DOE still refuses to release the reviewers' ratings and comments.
Charters with supporters who have strong ties to the Christie administration are approved, while others are not. A charter in Cherry Hill is approved over strenuous objections by the community; that charter appears to have a financial conflict of interest, and its founder clear ties to the Christie administration. The DOE encourages "boutique charters" to reapply even when previous applications had clear falsehoods.
It's been 342 days since Chris Cerf promised a report on charter schools - a real report that takes into account student characteristics - "as quickly as is humanly possible." Where is that report?
4) Why does Cerf insist that the "achievement gap" is evidence for imposing his radical reforms when New Jersey has so many high-performing students and schools?
New Jersey's schools are among the best in the nation by many standards. The "achievement gap" is caused not by relatively poor performance by minority and poor students, but by outstanding performance by all students. States with small "achievement gaps" are usually characterized by poor performance by all groups.
5) Why does Cerf insist on pushing unproven or disproven reforms on schools that are already among the best in the world?
Even Cerf himself can't deny that New Jersey has many great students and many great schools. Yet he insists on imposing a series of reforms on all of New Jersey's schools - merit pay, the elimination of tenure, expanded charter schools, teacher evaluations through standardized tests - that have not been shown to work.
This makes no sense, and is dangerous: "reforms" like this could harm New Jersey's schools for generations to come.
Contact information for the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee can be found here. Contact them and politely insist that they ask Cerf these five questions.