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

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Chris Cerf Story - A Summary

(Continued from The Chris Cerf Story - Part III
Here's Part I
Here's Part II)

So, having taken a deeper look at his career: what do we know about Chris Cerf?

This little anecdote gives us some context:
had my own moment with Cerf when he appeared at a Manhattan Institute luncheon and made the ridiculous comment that if we swapped the teaching staffs of a "successful" and a "failing" school we would see a big surge in the failing school and a drop in the successful school. I told him I would bet my pension against any stock options he owned that will enable him to enrich himself on the backs of poor children that there would be no impact - "try it in 10 schools to test your theory" I said. Even he looked sheepish at the bull***t he knew he was throwing around.
Harsh, but to the point. Cerf's entire career has been based on the notion that we can "save" our "failing" schools only by turning over large parts of our education system to corporate interests. Yet the failures in his own career suggest exactly the opposite.

His only teaching experience was at a wealthy private school. He worked for years managing a company that tried to make money by running urban schools, only to fail both financially and educationally; when he failed, he used funds from teachers' pensions to bail the company out and enrich himself. His time in the NYC schools was marked by conflicts of interests with corporate contractors and a relentless push for charter schools that show questionable results at best. And he has little reservation about spinning results to justify his policies or about using his office to attack his bosses' political opponents.

Chris Cerf has been steeped in the confluence of politics, business, and schools; he has become quite adept a navigating these currents. The question, however, is whether the skills he has developed are going to help New Jersey's children, or the special interests that the Christie Administration serves.

To answer that question, Cerf must be properly vetted, both at his confirmation hearings and in the press. Given what I've reported here, I suggest that he owes a full explanation to the following questions:
  • How do you square the promises of Edison Learning during your tenure as its president with the generally poor results your schools produced?
  • What, exactly, were the circumstances that led to the FL teachers pension investing in Edison, a company that was failing? What was your compensation from the deal? 
  • What was your relationship with Liberty Partners, the firm that negotiated the buyout of Edison?  How did that relationship continue after you went to work in NYC?
  • What were Edison's connections to Jeb Bush's FL administration before, during, and after the buyout? 
  • Why did you wait until after your appointment as Deputy Commissioner of the NYC schools to divest yourself from your financial interest in Edison? Were you aware that Edison was a contractor of the NYC schools at the time of your appointment? As a lawyer, shouldn't you have been immediately aware of this inherent conflict of interest?
  • What can you tell us to fill in the heavily redacted portions of the investigation into your improper solicitation for a charity from officials of Liberty Partners while you worked for Joel Klein in the NYC schools?
  • What did you know about the testing scandals in the NYC schools? What did you do to try to ascertain the validity of test scores that were later found to be artificially high?
  • Why did you implement a teacher evaluation program based on those test scores without informing the teachers themselves?
  • Will you monitor critics of the Christie Administration during your tenure as Commissioner, and will you use tax-payer dollars to do so - just as you did in NYC? Will you create "files" on your critics and share them with those who share your policy goals?
  • Given your career-long ties with corporate education providers, how can you justify your continuing championing of charter schools, especially since you yourself acknowledge that those schools have less challenging students in their classrooms?
If Cerf is to have any credibility with the teachers unions, the school districts, and the taxpayers of this state, he needs to address all of these issues, and he needs to address them soon.

Until then, given his history, Cerf stands as an emblem of the Christie Administration's deepest belief: that the best kind of government - and the best kind of education policy - is the kind that serves corporate and elite interests.

* * *

A note on this series: although I relied heavily on "mainstream" news sources, there are several excellent blogs that have reported on Cerf's career in the NYC schools, Edison Learning, and the corporatization of education:


Thanks to them for their continuing excellent work.


Leonie Haimson said...

Great job, Duke! I was going to do my own summary and may add some points on my blog, especially about Cerf's omissions on his conflict of interest form, his shady answers when it came to his continuing consulting relationship w/ Edison, even after being hired on staff at DOE, and his ridiculous management theories; but your four part series covered the waterfront. One question: when are the hearings?

Leonie Haimson

Duke said...

Leonie, It's a honor to have you visit here; your work is a model for netroots parent activism in the schools. I couldn't have written these posts without you.

Don't know when the hearings are, but I want to get this stuff to the staffs of the senators on the committee. He has several questions to answer.

Anything you can add will be very helpful. Again, I don't necessarily want the man not not be confirmed, but we MUST get his full history on the record.

calugg said...


VERY nice digging. So, we get an ideological pirate as commish. *SIGH!* What's worrisome is the further harm that will be inflicted on our public schools.

BTW: Stay tuned for the higher ed report tomorrow (Rutgers, NJIT and UMDNJ). I expect some shot-gun marriages to ensue.

Duke said...

Thanks, Catherine. I have not seen anything on Cerf and higher education.

I'll be interested to see the report as well. Putting UMDNJ under Rutgers may not be a bad thing, but I don't have an informed opinion...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Duke for a very in-depth study of a very important question. Our current school district superintendant has ties to for-pay education as well. I have always had concerns abut him and his choices ever since he was hired. Unfortunately, this series of articles only gives me more cause for concern.