Breaking every tie should always be done “in the best interest of the students,” Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said during a speech Tuesday, just days after the local board of education deadlocked on a significant vote.
Cerf made the comment at the grand opening of a $12.5 million charter school in the heart of the city’s downtown, the Leap Academy University Charter School STEM campus.
The LEAP science, technology, engineering and mathematics school, in part, is meant to fill a void in the education available through the local school district, where 23 of the city’s 26 schools are deemed failing.
While breaking a tie in the best interest of students is something of a stock phrase for Cerf, it resonated in Camden.
On Sept. 25, a deeply divided board of education voted 4-4 — with one abstention — to not go forward with a proposal which could have brought a new school complex to Camden through the Hope Act. Raymond Lamboy, the board member who abstained, was in Cerf’s audience. He declined comment.
The tie board vote killed a proposed five-school complex for more than 2,000 students from an alliance of KIPP, a national charter chain, and foundations run by Cooper University Hospital and the family of political leader George E. Norcross III.
That project, which was to rise in Lanning Square near Cooper, had scored highest with the district’s review committee. Three other Hope Act proposals did not get a single vote.
During an interview after the ceremony, Cerf said he hoped the school board and Mayor Dana Redd would revisit Hope Act proposals.
“I’m a big believer of the mayor and the board considering this in a collective process. My plan for now is not a plan, because there is a process under way, a democratic process,” said Cerf. [emphasis mine]OK, let's get a few things straight, shall we?
Cerf is not "breaking a tie." The Camden board tied on its vote for each of four Hope Act charter schools; those ties mean the schools were defeated. If Cerf comes in and overrides the votes, he is not breaking the ties; he is imposing his will on the board. Let's not pretend for a second that's it's anything else.
Next: Cerf is not an elected official. He was appointed by a governor who lost Camden City handily, even if he won his statewide race. The notion that he could override the board and approve these schools flies in the face of any notion of "democracy." Yes, the Camden school board is also appointed - but by a mayor who won 83% of the vote. Who really represents the voice of the people of Camden here: the board or Cerf? I think we all know the answer.
The fact is that the Christie administration partnered with the Norcross Democratic South Jersey machine to get these Hope Act charters passed. But even this juggernaut was stopped - because the whole proposal was lousy to begin with. Norcross's favored KIPP school came with a history of previous failure in Camden. Another charter was brought to us by the same shady folks who ruined the Chester Upland district in Pennsylvania.
The good people of Camden do not need nor want more charters that have records of failure - that's why the board voted down the Hope Act schools. But that means little to Commissioner Cerf: if he wants it, he gets it - unless there are political consequences.
See, early in his tenure, the then-ACTING Commissioner tried to shove charters down the throats of Republican-leaning towns out in the leafy 'burbs. That turned out to be a big mistake, and it came on the heels of Christie's gutting of state aid to schools out in his base. Cerf realized he way overplayed his hand; he admitted to Senator Loretta Weinberg in his confirmation hearing that he was no longer going to be pushing charters out in the 'burbs, as it "was not our finest hour" when he did.
Which is telling. Because Cerf - and Christie - know that the cities of Jersey are always going to vote Democratic. There's no political downside to pushing stuff on the cities, because Christie never had to worry about their votes anyway. So starve the public districts, bring in charters, and force beleaguered parents to choose: send your children to crumbling neighborhood public schools, or take a chance on shiny new charters that won't serve all of the students in your district anyway.
And, all the while, favored contractors get to wet their beaks. It's win-win - unless you're talking about the kids.
Meanwhile, the NJDOE continues to live in a state of denial about whether charters actually work:
583 days since Cerf was going to issue a report that looked at whether student characteristics made a difference in charter "effectiveness." Think we'll see that report before he issues his inevitable override and usurps democracy in Camden?