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

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cerf's Problems #1: Ethics and Transparency

As I wrote earlier, I see three problems with ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Cerf:

  1. He plays fast and loose with standards of ethics and transparency.
  2. He has accrued too much power to himself.
  3. He misrepresents research, data, and facts to push his policies.
Knowing that Cerf's long-awaited confirmation hearing is this Thursday, let's delve more deeply into this first problem:

I've already told the story of the shady stock deal from back when Cerf was running Edison schools; it still amazes me he was able to enrich himself on the backs of Florida teachers through their pensions. It's worth noting reports at the time talked about how saving Edison would line up with Jeb Bush's support of privatizing education:
With its contract up for renewal and under criticism, Liberty had an interest in pleasing Jeb Bush, who had promoted privatization and school vouchers (even though his programs have encountered legal problems, criminal investigations and a state investigation finding serious "lack of accountability"). How better to do that than save the flagship of school privatization?
"With all the possible investments that you could make in our economy where the likelihood of making a significant profit is so much more evident, why would you pick this company?" Abrecht asked. "How do you explain it except that if Edison had collapsed it would have been a huge blow to people who promote privatization of education, not as a business, but out of ideological motivations?" [emphasis mine]
I've also told the story of how Cerf held on to Edison stock even after he took a job with the NYCDOE (known to NYC education insiders as Tweed), a clear conflict of interest. For me, the worst part of the story is what happened when people tried to get a copy of the ethic investigator's report:

Who allowed this heavy redaction? Why have we never learned the full story about what happened?

There are a few other incidents from Cerf's time at Tweed. Cerf was in charge of a "Truth Squad" that monitored critics like Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson. Tweed took critics very seriously; in one case, Tweed leaked information to allies in the press to fuel a scathing piece about Ravitch. Looking back, it seems that the critics of schools chancellor Joel Klein and mayor Michael Bloomberg had a point: NYC's vaunted "success" under the two was really a mirage.

Cerf was also in charge of an early program in NYC to tie standardized test scores to teacher evaluations - even though many of the teachers didn't know about the program at the time. Cerf was the one who assured New York's teachers that their ratings based on tests would never be published; this past year, they were. He is now making those same assurances to New Jersey's teachers; can they be believed?

When Cerf came to New Jersey, he was almost immediately embroiled in yet another scandal. As I summarized several months ago:
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.
A quote from one of the initial stories about this in the Star-Ledger:
He asked The Star-Ledger not to publish this story because he said he did not think it was very important.
I've been very hard on the Star-Ledger's op-ed page, but this was superb work from their news staff. They detailed the secrecy and shifting stories of both Cerf and Newark Mayor Cory Booker very well. Cerf had donated money to Booker's campaign; Booker had hired his firm to rework the Newark district into a charter school haven. Cerf initially said he was little more than an address for the firm; the next day, he admitted he was far more involved. Booker wouldn't say where he got the money; turns out it came from the Broad Foundation, where Cerf was a graduate of its Superintendents "Academy."

This was the first time many New Jersey residents had ever heard of Eli Broad; people in Newark were rightly concerned that Broad would have far more say over the management of their city's schools than they would. As columnist Joan Whitlow aptly put it:
Now, however, we learn that school district and the state, which runs the Newark schools, has been working on a plan that involves a massive rearrangement of schools and students. It has come to fruition in secret without anyone asking or informing  principals, teachers, parents,students or even Newark's elected school advisory board about the when, how and why of it all.
I obtained a copy of "Newark Public Schools: School placement decision support analysis, Feb. 8, 2011," last week. "Strictly Confidential Draft Work Product," is stamped on almost every page. It was authored by Global Education Advisors, the group that did a recent survey of the Newark school system, paid for with foundation money raised by Booker. This relocation plan was also paid for with private donations.
The funding method saves public dollars, but also allows important public policy to be shaped without the light of full public disclosure, every step of the way. Philanthropic funding also comes with the risk that the result will be shaped to the desires of those paying the bills.
Transparency was never the primary concern for Booker or Cerf as they remade Newark's schools in their own image. And that lack of transparency extended to the authorization of charter schools throughout the state; as I wrote back in February:
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.
In the wake of criticism over the approval process, Cerf's predilection for bringing in outsiders led him to open the doors for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers:

"It's like hiring the fox to guard the henhouse," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which litigates on behalf of low-income schoolchildren. "What [New Jersey] seems to be doing is bringing foundations and other organizations that support their particular education reform agenda. I've never seen anything like this before."
Indeed: NACSA gets funds from the Walton and Gates Foundations, and has close ties to the conservative group ALEC, a source for legislation on charter schools and other education issues. The folks who are cheerleading for charters are also funding their approvals in New Jersey.

But what happens when citizens and advocates try to get to the bottom of these connections? Well...
The Education Law Center is suing the state to obtain documents about two private educational reform foundations and their funding of the Department of Education and some of its employees. 
The suit, citing the state’s Open Public Records Act, comes after the ELC was either being denied access to records or strung along with repeated requests for extensions that remain unfulfilled more than two months after the original request. 
State law requires that open records requests be fulfilled as soon as possible, but no later than seven business days after receiving the request.
The Education Law Center has unsuccessfully sought information from the Department of Education about the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, William Cox, a former DOE employee paid via funds from the Broad Foundation, and Bing Howell and Rochelle Sinclair, two Broad Foundation Residents who are employed by the DOE, yet paid in-part by the Broad Foundation. [emphasis mine]

Worse, Cerf sites on the Government Records Council, the group that handles the appeals of rejected requests for public information. There has been no reporting that I have seen as to whether he has recused himself from matters related to his own department.

The outside groups have helped to create a consultancy culture at NJDOE - a culture that has allowed people aligned with Cerf to pocket some hefty fees. Mike Miles and Penny MacCormack - both fellow graduates of Cerf from the Broad "Academy" - had large consultancy contracts through the NJDOE, raising more than a few eyebrows among lawmakers.

This lack of transparency and cronyism that seems to pervade NJDOE was most recently evident in reports about Cerf's involvement in the search for Jersey City's new superintendent:
The Hudson Reporter is publishing more details about a "confidential" meeting between Jersey City councilman and mayoral candidate Stephen Fulop, members of the JC Board of Education, and ACTING NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. 
Some background: Jersey City schools are under partial state control. Two days ago, the Reporter published the contents of an email Fulop sent titled "Cerf meeting." Among those invited to the meeting were two members of the board of education; two members-elect; Shelley Skinner, later to become Deputy Director of B4K, the lobbying group; and other private citizens. Not all of the members of the JCBOE are on the distribution list. 
This news comes at a particularly interesting time: Cerf is scheduled for his long-awaited confirmation hearing this Thursday. Over the past month, the NJDOE has denied involvement in the appointment of the new superintendent, Marcia Lyles, even though she, like Cerf, is a graduate of the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy. 
This new reporting suggests, however, that Cerf has been involved in the staffing of the superintendent position for a long time - as early as when the BOE was making the initial decision to replace former superintendent Charles Epps.
There is a real question here as to whether this meeting violated the spirit of the Sunshine Laws, even if it obeyed the letter of the law. At the very least, it shows Cerf has no problem meeting privately with allied politicians and selected school board members to discuss policy, even as he shies away from discussing the same things with the public.

Looking at all of this, I would have to say that there isn't one particular incident that rises to the level of disqualifying Cerf for the position. What concerns me more is the pattern: a pattern that eschews transparency and goes very close to crossing the ethical line over and over again.

Cerf should have to answer questions about all of these incidents. He should be made to understand that the power his position carries requires that he ask better of himself. I'll talk about that power - and how Cerf has acquired it - next.


Deb said...

Brilliant and very useful. Thank you JJ. You jazz!!!

Deb said...

Brilliant and very useful. Thank you JJ. You jazz!!!