I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Should Newark's Families Settle For an Unqualified Schools Superintendent Like Chris Cerf?

Cami Anderson, reviled by many of the stakeholders in Newark's schools, is leaving as the State Superintendent. Given the many failures of the unqualified Anderson -- including a huge budget deficit, the chaos of her One Newark plan, and the poor performance of her "renew" schools -- that's good news.

Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Ras Baraka have reached an agreement to create a "roadmap" to restore local control of the school district, a privilege enjoyed by all affluent suburban districts but denied to Newark for two decades. Given Christie's habit of breaking his promises, people are understandably wary; however, this is the first time this governor has agreed that local control must eventually return to Newark, and that's good news.

Unfortunately, we know now who will be running Newark's schools during the transition to local control. Chris Cerf, former Commissioner of Education for the entire state, is coming back from yet another junket in the private sector and will run the district for the foreseeable future.

This is not good news.

Those who've followed my writing over the years know that Cerf has a questionable track record, both in and out of the public sector. The former president of Edison Education, Cerf oversaw several disastrous experiments in school privatization in Philadelphia and Baltimore. His time working in the New York City schools was marked by allegations of conflicts of interest and mediocre performance.

While working for Christie as the head of the state's Department of Education, Newark's schools (as well as the rest of the state) saw an unprecedented retreat from adequate funding as defined by the state's own laws. Cerf imposed an illogical and expensive teacher evaluation system while greatly expanding standardized testing, over the objections of both Mayor Baraka and Newark's students.

Cerf has always been a huge proponent of charter school expansion; he even recently accepted an appointment to the board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Yet he never acknowledges that these schools can cause real damage to the finances of their host districts. He lauds charters' "successes," while blithely dismissing the fact that the charter sector does not educate nearly as many children who have special education needs or who are Limited English Proficient as its hosting district schools.

Cerf's firm, Global Education Advisors, actually came up with the proposal to expand charter schools in Newark. After Christie announced Cerf as his pick to lead the NJDOE, Cerf changed his story about the extent of his involvement in drafting that plan. There is no question, however, that Chris Cerf was one of the primary forces behind contracting Newark's school district while expanding charters.

Why, then, does it make sense to appoint a man to lead the Newark Public Schools when he was directly involved in shrinking the district? Especially when that man is unqualified to lead any locally-controlled district?

Chris Cerf taught for a few years at a tony private school; he's never taught in a public school, let alone led a district. He holds no degrees in education, and he has no standard certification in school administration. He's never been an instructional leader, he's never been at the helm of a public school district, and he has no record of building consensus within a community so schools can be improved.

The plain truth is that if Chris Cerf applied for a superintendent job in the suburbs, his resume would be stamped "Unqualified" and thrown into the trash. Yet here he stands, ready to take on the toughest school leadership job in the state.

New Jersey has many proven school leaders with records of real success in leading urban school districts. Why weren't they considered for the job? Why does Newark have to settle for Cerf when it can do much better?

Newark's families deserve a well-qualified, experienced superintendent as much as families living in the suburbs. Chris Christie should rescind Cerf's appointment and give the beautiful, deserving children of Newark the school leader they deserve.

Local control: it's still a white people thing.

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