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

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cerf's Problems #2: NJ's Education Autocracy

Once again, 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.
Let's look at #2 now. Where should the control of schools lie? With elected school boards and the elected Legislature? Or with an unelected bureaucrat and his staff in the Department of Education? Chris Cerf clearly believes it's the latter, and he has reorganized the structure and function of the NJDOE so it can take away as much power as possible from local districts and concentrate it in his office.

Let's go back to a column written by Joan Whitlow that I think summarizes the problem well:
For months, Newark parents, teachers and students have been attending meetings and filling out survey forms because they were told that education reform was coming to Newark and widespread community participation is essential for making educational change work.Widespread community participation will decide how Newark spends the $100 million Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to improve education in the city. That's what Mayor Cory Booker promised.
Community input would help decide who the new superintendent of Newark's schools will be. That's what Newarkers were told.
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. [emphasis mine]

That really is the central problem with the NJDOE's actions under Cerf in Newark and everywhere else: they do what they want without any meaningful input from the public, local school boards, parents, or education professionals. There is an air of arrogance wafting off of the NJDOE: they are looking to bypass the local boards, the citizens, and even the Legislature to push through their agenda.

This anonymous email from a former NJDOE staffer clues us in about the new attitude:

I am a former NJ DOE employee who resigned recently because I could no longer be a part of the extortion and fraud that is taking part there under the Broad Administration of Chris Cerf, Penny MacCormack, Peter Shulman, Bing Howell, ad nauseum.

Cerf first tried to get rid of the County Exec Superintendents offices, but was stopped when the legislature reminded him that they were created by statute.  How inconvenient!  So he hired a Broad Intern (for $90,000 named Rochelle Sinclair) who came up with the idea to overlay the state with 7 Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) staffed with "Education Rockstars" from around the country (read Broad Academy grads) who would go in to schools that were failing, assess them, replace the principals and hire new teachers (Teacher 4 America, anyone?).  The problem was the cost.

Enter Arne Duncan and the NCLB waiver, plus the Race to the Top funding.  Now Penny MacCormack is trying to divert the SES money we still have ($56 million)., to pay for the RACs.  Oh, and we have thrown out the NCLB report cards and replaced them with our own in-house "measures of proficiency" which is a lot of speculative data manipulated by another bunch of Broad interns since none of the in-house data people would go along with this scheme.  They have all been "rubber roomed" in other departments for not being "team players."

So far, so good.  Now, armed with his new proficiency data, Cerf has swooped down on a bunch of "underperforming" charter schools, presenting them with two options:  we pull your charter, close you down, and your kids are on the street OR you select from this DOE-approved list of Charter Management Organizations (more Broad buddies) who will TAKE OVER YOUR CHARTER.  This is extortion.  The first to fall will be Paul Robeson Charter in Trenton which has a fund balance of $1.6 million.  They are even forcing them to change the name of the school to Scholars Academy!!!

Save us from the pirates of education reform.  I know you guys are not really fond of charters, but Cerf is after the public schools, too.  (See Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, and Camden).  First he comes for the charters, then he comes for the public schools.  
It would be one thing if the facts didn't back up this staffer; unfortunately, a look around the state confirms this email all too well.

Newark: I detailed the scandal around Cerf's old firm, Global Education Advisors, in Part One of this series. But that was only the beginning of the takeover of Newark for Cerf. He installed the new superintendent, Cami Anderson, a former head of Teach For America who has pushed charters over the objections of the community, and has proposed radical changes in teacher evaluation and compensation in spite of a lack of evidence for her proposals.

But under Anderson's leadership over the last year, the state's evaluation of Newark's governance actually got worse. In a bizarre Catch-22, that means that the state is now less likely to give up local control, which means more charter schools over the objections of the elected advisory board.

Recently, applications for "virtual" charter schools - completely on-line or "blended" with on-line and brick-and-mortar schooling - came before the Cerf; three out of four were out of Newark. While this undoubtedly had to do with the fact that Mayor Cory Booker's biggest fundraiser is also the chairman of one of the country's largest providers of on-line instruction, it's also clear that eduction profiteers see the state control of Newark as a good reason to make it their base of operations in New Jersey.

Paterson: Cerf has made promises about revitalizing Paterson's state-controlled schools, but the most he seems to have done is get a fellow Broad "Academy" graduate, Mike Miles, a very cushy consultancy gig there. Again, Cerf casually dismisses the notion of returning local control to the district, but the plans the Christie administration makes for the city's schools go nowhere. As a member of Paterson's advisory board says:

So the state runs the district. However, if it is determined that the district does not score well on QSAC, the assessment vehicle, it is the Board of Education that is sanctioned, not the state DOE. The state may MANDATE programmatic changes, personnel revisions, budget cuts, revisions, or reallocations, and even force associations with companies and consultants. The board of education has little or no say in any of this. The state may even change the state appointed superintendent at will, and appoint someone of their own choosing, (see Newark) without board, and more importantly, community input, but if the district fails to achieve the QSAC scores the state is looking for, it then blames the board of education for the failures and takes on NONE of the responsibility itself. Also the people who do the evaluations work for the state!

Jersey City: Cerf has claimed multiple times that he was not involved in the decision to hire Marcia Lyles, a fellow Broad graduate, as the superintendent of Jersey City, which remains under state control. But details of a secret meeting between Cerf, some members of the JCBOE, mayoral candidate Stephen Fulop, and selected citizens make clear that Cerf has been involved in changing the management of the district from the very start. In Fulop's words:

> What was discussed - I and the newly elected board members were trying to convince Cerf that there is a sentiment of change in JC and there is a new board majority and record voter turnouts and that the potential for education progress in JC was huge. Not an easy lift 

> What was needed from the state - They needed to sign a pay waiver for Epps and be comfortable that the board was going to truly do a national search and not revert back to politics of just hiring a friendly face.[emphasis mine]
It's clear that there was no chance Cerf was going to allow a local candidate to be considered for the position, no matter what the community or the rest of the JCBOE might think. He as much as threatened to use his power to override the board's decisions if he didn't agree with them: what better way to get a fellow Broad graduate into the position without saying so outright?

Camden: A stunning report by the Courier-Post details a secret NJDOE memo that threatened a near-complete takeover of Camden's school district. This memo was written by NJDOE staffers who are actually paid from the Broad Foundation (anyone seeing a pattern yet?). Among the proposals:

• Control the school board by taking away members’ ability to vote for at least six months, plus adding three state-appointed members. Place all hiring and firing decisions in the hands of the state Board of Education
• If a superintendent vacancy happens during state intervention, the commissioner would recommend a replacement with confirmation by state board. 
• Increase charter schools and attract charter management organizations such as those run by the KIPP chain. Send Camden students out of district to choice and vocational schools. 
The proposal also calls for passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a proposed corporate tax credit scholarship bill. This would be used to send children to religious schools and private schools, including boarding schools.

Howell also said the state should partner with Teach for America, Knowledge is Power Program and The New Teacher Project . The three programs have or had links to Broad Foundation board members Wendy Kopp (TFA), Richard Barth (KIPP) and Michelle Rhee (formerly of TNTP and a TFA alumna). [emphasis mine]
Trenton: As the former NJDOE staffer's email points out, charter schools in Trenton are now being subsumed by charter management organizations with the blessing of the NJDOE. The local charter boards are being removed and replaced by outside groups under the threat of closure if they don't comply.

Cherry Hill & Voorhees: A charter school in Cherry Hill was proposed by a man with connections to the Christie administration and the powerful Black Ministers Council, despite the fact that the high-performing district neither wanted not needed it. The districts had to set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars on the chance that the school was going to be approved.

Highland Park: As Darcie Cimarusti has reported on extensively, the same thing happened in Highland Park: citizens were strung along for years on the possibility that a charter school that had little local support might be approved and impact the local budget and programs. Despite many problems with the application, the charter was given multiple chances to reapply, and NJDOE changed the rules for approval many times, making it difficult for local citizens to voice their objections.

Other Suburbs: Piscataway is now suing because they must continue to fund large surpluses for charter schools over which they have no control. Teaneck residents had to protest to stop over $15 million from the school budget from being set in escrow for an on-line charter school. Millburn - one of the highest performing school districts in the state - had to mount an opposition to a boutique charter leeching funds from its district.

All of this suburban opposition to charters became necessary because the sole power to approve a charter rests with the ACTING Commissioner, Chris Cerf. The people who actually pay taxes to fund the schools have no say, through their elected school boards, over whether the charter can be approved, and no oversight powers.

As I've written before: people have dumped tea into harbors over this sort of thing. It speaks volumes as to whether the ACTING Commissioner has accrued too much power to himself.

Cerf has a plan to distribute that power throughout the state: a series of "Regional Achievement Centers" funded in part, again, with money from the Broad Foundation. Cerf wanted the RACs to control the County Superintendent offices which are actually empowered by statute; in other words, he wanted his centers, designed by and reporting solely to him, to take control over offices that are written into law.

Many of the County Superintendent positions are now unfilled; Chris Christie has had no problem with firing people in these positions at will. And Cerf insists that he will go forward with the RACs, even though the Legislature cut funding for them from the last budget; is he planning on getting Broad to write another check?

What does all of this add up to? Cerf himself said it best, as reported by a tweeter at a conference Cerf spoke at last year:

 Dale Chu 

 Chris Cerf: "This is a knife fight in a dark rm. We haven't shown courage & we've been nibbling at edges." 

Well, we can certainly see that Chris Cerf is not very much interested in shining light on his policies and his plans; it appears that a dark room is exactly where he wants this "knife fight" to take place.

No comments: