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 27, 2013

Where Is Chris Cerf's Accountability?

LEAP Academy, a charter school in Camden, has lost its non-profit status, which puts $8.5 million in bonds at risk for default. Since these bonds are guaranteed by Rutgers-Camden, either state taxpayers or tuition-paying students will have to take a haircut if the bonds go south. In addition, the school has been under-performing academically, not having made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the last two years.

And yet, just this past fall, NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf proudly cut the ribbon for the opening of LEAP's brand new $12.5 million STEM school.

This is an enormous embarrassment for Cerf, because his office is the only authority in the state that charter schools have to answer to. The New Jersey Department Of Education is ultimately responsible for charter approvals, reauthorizations, oversight, and advising; LEAP's fiscal failures and educational troubles must be laid at Cerf's feet:
According to its statement, LEAP did not file a required annual Form 990 with the IRS “due to conflicting advice on the administrative need to do so as a New Jersey charter school.”
LEAP said it learned 13 months ago that its tax-exempt status had been revoked in November 2010. The school issued the statement after a recent bond publication reported on the change.
Camden Pride’s tax-exempt status also was revoked in November 2010, according to the IRS. [emphasis mine]

There is really only one source of "advice" for LEAP that actually matters: the NJDOE. So how did Cerf's office screw up so badly? A little history is in order:

When Governor Chris Christie came into office in 2010, Rochelle Hendricks ran the Division of School Effectiveness and Choice, under which charters were regulated. Christie appointed Brett Schundler as Education Commissioner; after Christie famously screwed up New Jersey's Race To The Top application and used Schundler as a scapegoat, Hendricks stepped in as Interim Commissioner.

During her tenure, she relied on Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick to help her with charter school expansion. But even the state Board of Education had problems with their plans; it was clear charters would only grow under a new regime.

Enter Chris Cerf; Christie announced the veteran education privatizer as his formal pick for commissioner in January of 2011. Cerf eventually reorganized the NJDOE and brought in Carly Bolger to oversee charters. Bolger lasted less than a year, eventually replaced by the current director of the charter office, Amy Ruck, who has been officially on the job less than a year.

In other words: by my count, at least three different people have been in charge of charter schools in the three years of the Christie administration.

What has all of this turnover in personnel led to? Well, even organizations as reformy as the Center for Education Reform criticized the NJDOE for their "...lack of transparency in the application review process while uncovering severe bias and subjectivity applied by external reviewers and the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Charter Schools."

And that's only one part of the follies that surrounded charters in New Jersey; there was also:

I don't think I've even covered it all, but you get the point: New Jersey's oversight of charter schools under Chris Cerf has been a disaster. He brought in people light on experience - both in education and in New Jersey - and the state's children have paid the price for their incompetence.

And it's not just the turnover at the NJDOE that's caused this train wreck; it's the infestation of inexperienced ideologues, paid for by California billionaires who bad-mouth New Jersey's students and schools. Their arrogance and intransigence have turned the state's charter approval and oversight processes into a bad joke.

This is why the NJDOE tried to put charters into towns where they weren't wanted and weren't needed. This is why charter applications were approved not on sound practices and records of success, but on political connections. This is why Chris Cerf cuts a red ribbon at a charter school's new building, and three months later the school is in deep trouble because it got bad "advice." The NJDOE has become dysfunctional under its current commissioner; the charter school circus in this state is all the proof anyone needs.

Monday morning, Cerf will finally go before the Senate Education Committee; he should have to explain his track record of failure when it comes to charters. Any man who worries so much about "accountability" should be required to start with himself.
"Accountability" begins at home.

ADDING: The senators should also ask Cerf whether Eli Broad's payments to the NJDOE should be subject to legislative oversight. I would dearly love to hear his answer.


Anonymous said...

It might also be worthwhile to see who underwrote these and other charter school bond issues, and what if any connections might exist there..

cmooretech said...

From the article above and this one from Chicago (http://tinyurl.com/au5jhm4), I think they really should have thought through this whole charter thing a bit more before they shoved it down everyone's throats as the next best thing in education!

ad77 said...


There isn't any in this state as demonstrated by this morning's "Love Fest" or Senate Education Committee meeting. There suppose to be checks and balances in government in many different forms: typical partisan, executive branch vs. legislative branch, personal differences. Yet none of this exists in NJ.

It was so orchestrated that it was disgraceful.

Bertin Lefkovic said...

Was Hatikvah's charter approved by Cerf or before he was appointed? Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that their first year of existence was 2010-2011, which means that their charter was most likely approved in 2009 if not earlier. When was Schundler fired?

I agree with most of your argument here, but I do not understand why you have to include suburban charter schools, regardless of whether most of the community supports it or not.

Is a community correct when they vote against school budgets? If not, then they can be just as wrong about a charter school that is offering their community something different that was organically conceived of by a segment of the community that is looking for something different.

East Brunswick might not need Hatikvah, but enough people there and elsewhere want it. Shouldn't that be good enough? As far as the cost to East Brunswick and the other communities that lose students to Hatikvah like Highland Park is concerned, shouldn't they be able to get that money back by accepting students from New Brunswick through the Inter-district School Choice Program?

Unknown said...

Bertin, so long as you condemn charters created by charter incubators, but fail to acknowledge that Hatikvah is one of them, it is nearly impossible to converse with you. Moreover, you refuse to acknowledge the disgusting presence of segregation fostered by this school. You also have admitted that as someone who does not live in the community that you are not able to speak first-hand about the divisiveness and destructive impact of this school on our town.
Clearly, with your daughter at this school, you are on a constant mission to rationalize your choice. However, your premise is not based in reality, nor do you ever listen to any who you disagree with, no matter how much evidence they present you with.

Bertin Lefkovic said...

What evidence has been presented that the HCSC is a for-profit charter school incubator like KIPP or that there is any segregation being fostered by Hatikvah?

KIPP and their ilk mass produce urban charter schools on the cheap, because when they look at the children who attend these schools, they only see the money that comes with them.

Conversely, when members of a community such as Hatikvah, go to the HCSC for help in creating a school, what they get is primarily advice, best practices, and direction. Whatever financial help that they receive from the HCSC and foundations is secondary.

I regularly drop off and/or pick up my daughter from school and see the children in her and other classes swirling around me. I cannot say for sure if the school is exactly as diverse as the East Brunswick schools, because I do not have the respective demographic data at my disposal, but Hatikvah is definitely far more diverse than what she would be experiencing if she was still going to school in Dunellen.

If you want to call that a rationalization, feel free. My wife and I spend two hours a day in our car, driving our daughter to school when we could just as easily spend 20 minutes or less taking her to Hatikvah. No rationalization is necessary for us. We are very happy about the decision that we have made.

That said, my advocacy for Hatikvah has as much to do with the fact that I have been involved with other organic charter schools like it before I was even married and had children and can tell the difference between them and those mass produced by the for-profit charter school incubators. The problem is that people who see all charter schools as the same and all charter schools as the enemy do not realize that by doing so, they are alienating potential allies and giving them no choice but to stand with the incubators.

The problems facing public education today are far more complex than charter versus traditional. Charter schools and traditional schools can and should work together instead of being at war with another, but the only way that can happen is by progressively reforming the current charter school legislation.

You can assign all of the blame for the divisiveness and the destructive impact of this fight on East Brunswick if that makes you feel better, but it is not true. East Brunswick and other school districts who have lost students and the money that goes with them to Hatikvah and charter schools like them could get other students and the money that comes with them from towns like New Brunswick if they participated in the Inter-district School Choice Program. Can you explain to me why they do not do this?

Unknown said...

Bertin, no one said "for-profit." I said "charter incubator." You're acting as though this school was organically created and just happened to win a grant from Steinhardt, when in fact, he specially created the HCSN to open twenty of these schools in a set time frame. Steinhardt even has one of his own employees on Hatikvah’s very tiny Board of Trustees. You are also leaving out that Tikum Olam was also a Steinhardt/HCSN- supported school until the federal government started investigating falsified documents in its application; and that a Hatikvah Board member and parent actually signed off on Tikum Olam’s falsified application.