Late last week New Jersey Spotlight, an online news service that covers information on issues critical to New Jersey, published an opinion piece by Mark Weber, Looking Closely at the Dangerous Legacy of Commissioner Chris Cerf. Weber profiles Christopher Cerf, Governor Chris Christie’s appointed state Commissioner of Education.
One of the reasons the piece is so important is that New Jersey had so much to lose when Christie and Cerf imposed what has become known as a “corporate reform” agenda on the state’s public schools.
New Jersey is an extremely segregated state racially and economically with wealthy suburbs of New York City, beach communities along the Jersey Shore, rural truck farming communities, and cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson—cities that are racially segregated with extremely concentrated poverty. Last fall the Southern Education Foundation—noting that, “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools. Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011.”—documented that 78 percent of the school children in New Jersey’s cities are low income.
Unlike other states, however, and thanks to the decades-long efforts of the plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke and their attorneys at the Education Law Center, New Jersey has in the past made the greatest strides of any state toward school funding equity. And the data have proven that sending significant extra state funds into New Jersey’s 31 poorest school districts along with guaranteeing pre-school for the children of these districts has been an important investment in opportunity for these children. Here is how David Kirp, in an important 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke:
“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts… Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers… Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. but the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.” (pp. 84-85)
A new report by the Education Law Center demonstrates that while , due to Abbott, New Jersey’s high poverty districts were in 2007 funded 40 percent more than low poverty districts, the state’s investment has slipped under Christie and Cerf. Today New Jersey’s high poverty districts get only 7 percent extra.
Weber’s profile of Christopher Cerf as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner is troubling in many ways. Not only have Christie and Cerf reduced school finance equity, but they have “deconstructed” urban school districts. School closures in Newark’s African American neighborhoods fill the newspapers today. Tests and accompanying state ratings of schools are the centerpiece of the Cerf tenure. Teachers are under intense scrutiny and being evaluated by their students’ “growth percentile scores.”
According to Weber, “Leadership has been redefined, and not for the better.” Many of New Jersey’s big-city school districts are under state control, and Cerf has ensured that their appointed superintendents fit the profile for which he is the prototype. Weber’s summary of Cerf’s career is the very definition of the corporate school “deformer.” Here are highlights. “He never taught in a public school, never earned a degree in education, and never ran a school building… After a few years of teaching at a private school, Cerf pursued a law career, eventually working in the Clinton administration. He shifted over to education not as a practitioner, but as the president of Edison Learning, the ill-fated school management company that never lived up to its promises in Philadelphia and elsewhere. That was followed by a stint in the vast and complex New York City schools, serving as deputy chancellor under his colleague in the Clinton White House, Joel Klein….”
Joel Klein, an attorney by profession, left his position as Chancellor of the New York City Schools (under Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to head up a new education technology division, Amplify, for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Amplify is the division that manages data for school districts and produces computer tablets for sale to school districts. Christopher Cerf is leaving his position as Commissioner of Education in New Jersey to join Klein, his former boss, at Amplify. Weber comments: “When Cerf departs at the end of March, he’ll be continuing a pattern of sliding back and forth between the private and public sector that he’s engaged in over his entire career.”