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, August 15, 2017

Chris Cerf Is Better Than You -- Just Ask Him

Chris Cerf is, of course, the State Superintendent of the Newark Public Schools. He holds this position not because the citizens of Newark chose him, nor because he was appointed by a democratically elected school board, nor because he was chosen by the democratically elected mayor, nor because he had an outstanding track record as a chief officer in another public school district (he never ran a district before Newark*).

No, Cerf only holds his office because Chris Christie -- the man for whom Cerf worked for three years as Education Commissioner -- put him there.

And why did Christie choose Cerf? We can only guess, but as this interview from the past Sunday makes plain, Cerf does share his boss's love of taking cheap shots at those who disagree with him. Before we get to that, however, let's see what spin Cerf is serving these days about charters:
Q. What do you think of the idea that charters siphon off resources from public schools?

A. It presumes charters are not public schools. But they are. They are publicly funded, open to all, tuition-free, accountable to democratically-elected authorities, and in New Jersey, not for-profit.
What nonsense. Yes, charter schools are publicly funded. But Newark Prep -- which was approved by Cerf when he was Commissioner but closed down last year due to poor performance -- was managed for years by K12 Inc., a for-profit corporation. And Camden Community Charter School -- also approved by Cerf, also closed due to poor performance this past year -- was also, according to the Star-Ledger, managed by a for-profit corporation.

But what's really galling here is Cerf's insistence that charters are overseen by "democratically-elected authorities." Because not one charter school in Newark was required to gain approval from the local school board, or the mayor, or the city council. All they needed was a nod from the Education Commissioner, who serves at the pleasure of the governor.

Keep in mind that Chris Christie lost in Newark by a landslide in the 2013 election: 6,443 to 29,039. The notion, then, that Newark's charter sector is "accountable to democratically-elected authorities" is a sick joke. But when it comes to charters, Cerf lives in an alternate universe:
The only difference is that a charter is managed by a board of citizens, as opposed to a local school board. Secondly, charters receive only 90 percent of the per-pupil operating cost of a traditional public school, which means that for every student who leaves for a charter, the district retains 10 percent to cover its fixed expenses.

So it's only a negative if the district cannot manage its own expenses to keep its fixed and legacy costs to a number equal to or less than 10 percent. [emphasis mine]
Cerf's hypocrisy here would be funny if the consequences weren't so serious. Because it wasn't even two years ago that Chris Cerf was complaining to the State BOE that charters had an unfair fiscal advantage, and that advantage was hurting his district:
Much of the budget pressure has come from payments the district is required to make to the city’s charter schools. Cerf, a cheerleader for charter schools as state commissioner, yesterday acknowledged that some funding stop-gap is needed to help the district.
He said the mandatory funding for charter schools year to year is “disproportionately hurting the district schools,” adding, “We can’t just turn the other way and let that happen.” [emphasis mine]
Oh, come on, Chris -- can't you keep your fixed and legacy costs in line?

As Cerf undoubtedly knows, New Jersey charter schools have been "held harmless" in their revenues for three years running. This means charters haven't had to take the financial hit that district schools, like Newark's, have had to take because Christie has refused to fully fund the School Funding Reform Act -- the state's own law that ensures districts get adequate and equitable funding.

For every year Christie has been in office -- including the three years Cerf was his Education Commissioner -- Christie has refused to follow the state's own law and provide New Jersey's schools with the funding they need to fulfill the mandates of the state constitution. In Newark, for FY2017 alone, this meant Cerf's district was $181 million below its adequacy target, or $3,615 per pupil.

Cumulatively, NPS is $611 million in the hole since the beginning of Christie's reign. It could have been worse: back in 2011, the state's Supreme Court ordered Christie to restore half-a-billion dollars in state aid to the neediest districts. But that didn't stop Cerf, working on Christie's behalf, from running up and down the state, making the case that New Jersey's schools didn't need the funding the state's own law said they needed.

I contend that there is no one individual over the last eight years -- and yes, I do include Christie -- who has done more to undermine the state's own law on school funding than Chris Cerf. It was Cerf, after all, who authored the 2012 Education Funding Report, an incoherent, rambling mess that tried to make the case that while money matters in education, the schools serving the most disadvantaged students were clearly suffering because they had too much.

As Bruce Baker noted in real time, once you got past the reformy pablum served up in the report, the actual policy of Christie and Cerf was to cut aid to districts serving larger proportions of at-risk students, while simultaneously giving more aid to districts enrolling proportionally fewer at-risk students.

Cerf's report made the case the "weights" for at-risk students were too high in SFRA, even as the empirical evidence showed they were, in fact, very likely too low. He tried to argue that eliminating tenure was absolutely critical for student success, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that tenure impedes student achievement (in fact, there's some evidence strong collective bargaining improves staff effectiveness). Cerf also argued for changing the way students are counted in the aid formula, a clear attempt to decrease funding going to districts enrolling more at-risk students.

But the Funding Report was only the beginning of Chris Cerf's assault on equitable and adequate school funding. In 2013, Cerf stood in front of the NJEA and presented a brazenly deceptive graph in an attempt to downplay the effects of poverty on student outcomes.

Here is the full set of data that Cerf's slide omitted:

Still amazes me every time I see it.

There was also Cerf's twisting of national test scores to make New Jersey's schools appear to be failing their students; Matt DiCarlo did a great job at the time deconstructing Cerf's arguments. And there was the December, 2012 report that bizarrely tried to rationalize the Christie aid cuts; again, Bruce Baker pointed out how absurd its arguments were. Plus there was the proposed policy of underfunding the districts Cerf's DOE classified as "Priority" more than ones classified as "Reward."

All of this went on while New Jersey, under Chris Christie, retreated from funding equity -- even as the record clearly showed the state had made significant gains during the period of meaningful funding reform.

Again: it's not hard to make the case that Chris Cerf was as responsible as anyone for giving cover to the underfunding of New Jersey's schools under Chris Christie -- including, notably, the Newark Public Schools. And yet, despite this track record, Cerf has the stones to make the case that he cares more for the wee children than anyone who dares to disagree with his reformy views:
I look with astonishment at groups like Save Our Schools, highly represented by white wealthy suburbanites that have made it their mission to undermine the opportunity of poor African-American students to have access to quality education. 
Many don't honor their own principles by sending their children to private schools or living in leafy green suburbs. I ask myself whether the strength of their argument would be affected if the focus of charters did not include suburbs like Princeton. 
Mostly, I'm aghast at seemingly progressive individuals who so deeply misunderstand the profound injury their position will cause families of vastly more limited means. [emphasis mine]
Let's start with the low-hanging fruit: Chris, when you were Education Commissioner, did you ever walk into the governor's office and fault him for sending his children to highly-resourced private schools?

Yes, there are people in Save Our Schools who live in the suburbs. Yes, there are people who question charter school proliferation who send their kids to private schools. The difference, Chris, is that none of them, so far as I know, have ever tried to undermine the state's own law regarding full and fair funding of public schools.

For three years, Chris, you did everything within your power to keep schools serving large numbers of at-risk students from getting the funds the state's own law says they should get -- all while your boss gave gobs of tax breaks to wealthy, connected special interests. You went out of your way to justify Christie's underfunding of SFRA with some of the most fallacious nonsense imaginable, costing Newark hundreds of millions of dollars for their schools.

And still, despite your own past, you publicly question others' motives:
I stay up at night wondering how otherwise good-hearted people could say they want to impose a moratorium or somehow stop the addition of charter schools, when so many children are choosing them and being successfully launched into adulthood on the basis of that choice. 
Unfortunately, I think the answer is a raw political one. By statute, traditional public schools are unionized and charter public schools could be unionized, but are not required to be. 
The interest group in the state that spends by far the most money in Trenton, the teacher's union, would be economically hurt by the increased number of charter schools because it would lose dues-paying members. I think this is a purely economic argument. They do not want to lose members. All their talk about creaming and hedge funds is just so much propaganda that they have focus grouped and determined works in the public debate.

Is it true? Is the charge that Newark's charters don't enroll the same sorts of students as NPS "just so much propaganda"?

Let's go to the data, straight from Cerf's former office, the NJDOE (and including the three years when he ran it):

Year after year, NPS enrolls proportionally more special education students than the Newark charter sector.

The special education students the charters do take tend to have lower-cost disabilities compared to the classified students enrolled at NPS. (The lower-cost disabilities are speech impairments (SPL) and specific learning disabilities (SLD); see here for more information.)

Newark's charter sector enrolls very few students who are Limited English Proficient. 

Yes, the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility rates between the district and the charters look the same. But keep in mind that NPS has been expanding its free lunch program** for some time, which means the incentive for families to fill out applications has waned. The charters, on the other hand, have a great incentive for their families to fill out the application, as their funding increases based on the number of FRPL students they enroll.

Whether there is, in fact, a difference in the socio-economic status of charter students compared to district students is a serious question. Cerf says there's "zero factual evidence" to support a charge of creaming. I say: What have you done, Chris, to explore the question, either as Commissioner or State Superintendent?

Who did you contract with to look into why charters don't enroll as many LEP students as their host districts? Who did you assign from your staff to write a report on the disparity in special education rates between the two sectors?

As you know, Chris, Julia Sass Rubin and I wrote the report using your department's data that explored these questions. But why did we have to do it? Why did I have to be the one to use your department's data and point out charter schools spend far more on administrative costs and far less on support services than the New Jersey charter sector?

Why did I have to be the one who pointed out that charter staffs have far less experience than district staffs, and consequently make less money? The charters you laud are basically free-riding on district salaries negotiated by the unions you casually denigrate. Did this ever concern you? Did you ever even think about it? Did you ever hire people for your senior staff who had the capacity to study this stuff?

Chris Cerf has a nasty habit of questioning other people's motives. You would have thought maybe a few years actually running a school district would give him a little bit of humility, and a little bit of space to reflect on his own culpability in underfunding New Jersey schools.

Sadly, Cerf appears set in his ways. He'd rather take his pot shots than own up to the terrible legacy he left as Commissioner. Luckily for Newark, he won't be around much longer. Hopefully, he'll soon return to the private sector, where his record speaks for itself.

Accountability begins at home.

ADDING: Remember this? Good times...

ADDING MORE: As Darcie Cimarusti reminds us, Atlantic City Community Charter is also managed by a for-profit CMO. And, according to the Star-Ledger, Central Jersey Arts Charter School contracts with a for-profit manager.

Pesky facts...

* Maybe now that Newark is regaining control of its schools, it can look around for a superintendent who has actually run a district - unlike the last two appointed by Chris Christie.

** This is a good thing. It's one of the few things I give Cerf and Cami Anderson credit for.

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