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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Awaiting Lord Cerf's Next Decree

For a guy who was appointed - not elected - and remains unconfirmed, ACTING Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf certainly wields a lot of power:
The state Office of Administrative Law has ruled against the Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS) in their lawsuit filed against the South Brunswick, Princeton and West Windsor-Plainsboro boards of education. 
Judge Lisa James-Beavers issued a ruling against the charter school late Friday afternoon. Her written decision will now be sent to acting Department of Education Commissioner Chris Cerf for review.
The suit alleged the misuse of public funds and the use of governmental positions by the three school districts to fight the opening of PIACS.
In her decision, Judge Beavers found that the three districts have "discretionary authority to perform all acts and do all things, consistent with the law and the rules of the state board, necessary for the lawful and proper conduct, equipment and maintenance of the public schools of the district."
"The discretionary authority includes activities at issue here, which were taken to protect the financial interest of the resident districts," Judge Beavers wrote in her decision.
So a judge says that school boards can expend funds to protect the interests of their constituents. Wow, how radical.

Oops! Looks like that judge isn't the final word; we must await a decree from the Lord High Executioner:
Judge Beavers' decision may be adopted, modified or rejected by Commissioner Cerf, who by law is authorized to make the final decision on the ruling. Cerf has 45 days to take action, otherwise Judge Beavers' decision will become final.
I don't care if a corporatizer like Cerf or anyone else holds the position: this is wrong. The duly elected representatives of these communities, who were elected to office with the specific task of overseeing the local education system, do not want this charter school in their community. Now an unelected, unconfirmed bureaucrat can jam it down their throats and force them to pay for it simply on his say so.

This is a disturbing but unsurprising trend. As much as the corporate reformers complain about how parents feel "disenfranchised," over and over again we see this authoritarian streak rear its ugly head when they get into power. Mayor Mike Bloomberg in NYC is possibly the worst example of this, but Chris Christie and Lord Cerf are not far behind.

The "reform" bills Christie is supporting in the Legislature give Cerf all kinds of powers one unelected official simply should not have. In addition to approving charters, he would be given carte blanche to set teacher evaluation schemes however he sees fit. He already has far too much control over school contracts and budgets, negating them whenever he doesn't like them. He remains the Earl of Newark, running a district that hasn't had any local control for years, with money predictably flowing to his fellow lords and ladies. He apparently changes his mind about his "pilot" program (code name: Amelia Earhart, because it's totally off course) whenever he sees fit.

All while he plays good cop to Christie's bad cop in front of us teachers and tells us "Don't worry, be happy!"

We've seen this kind of imperial executive behavior before. It never ends up well:

The Legislature needs to stop this, and stop it now. Christie's "reform" bills are power grabs that disenfranchise voters and their elected representatives. Education is not Lord Cerf's private fiefdom.

Lord Cerf says: "It's good to be the king!"

Gov. Chris Christie and acting education commissioner Chris Cerf on Wednesday outlined the new accountability system that would demand changes in more than 200 schools with either low achievement or wide achievement gaps. And they said they would consider withholding federal and state aid from schools that refuse to make ordered changes. Part of the plan submitted would include closing a low performing school outright, they said.
But some longtime legal observers -- and oftentimes critics of the administration -- said such actions are not quite so clearcut in the current law, and Christie and Cerf may be stretching the boundaries.
“Consistent with state law, they can go in and direct districts to take particular actions,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center that has spearheaded the Abbott litigation. “All of that, they clearly have the authority to do.
“But nothing that I am aware of allows them to close existing schools,” he said. “And they have no power to withhold funds. That’s even outside the scope of the federal guidelines. ”
Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor and noted expert on education law, said he also questioned whether the application’s reform plans ran counter to the state’s current school-monitoring system, the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC).
“As a constitutional matter, it is pretty clear the commissioner has whatever power he needs to ensure a thorough and efficient education,” he said. “But that’s different than saying if there is a legislation out there, he can just ignore it.”
In terms of significant alterations such as reassigning staff or directing changes in collective bargaining, Tractenberg said, “there are all kinds of big-time issues about their legal authority to do that.”
Don't worry guys - they'll fix that. They've got plenty of allies in the Legislature who gave them the ability to ignore contractual obligations about public worker pensions; I'm sure they'll find a way around this as well.

Trust them. Really. It'll all be just fine...


Anonymous said...

Another Brooksian image comes to mind: Silent Movie's "Engulf and Devour" with Harold Gould as the foaming CEO and Ron Carey as his lackey.

I think their motto was "Our Fingers Are In Everything."

Lisa said...

You can taste the irony, but it sours the stomach as it's laced with hypocrisy. The Republicans insist that a government mandate to force the public to pay for health insurance they may not want is unconstitutional and unpalatable. But they want us to swallow a government mandate to force the public to pay for a charter school they don't want.

It would be funny in a TV sitcom, but this is our reality.