NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf Pushes Corporate School Reform As He Leaves His Position

Christopher Cerf will leave his position as Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey state school commissioner this coming Friday, February 28,  to join Amplify, the school assessment, consulting, and tablet division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.  Cerf is leaving to work for his former boss, Joel Klein, who served as New York City’s school chancellor when Cerf was an assistant.  Perhaps because of Cerf’s pending departure, there is much scurrying around by those wanting quickly to solidify New Jersey’s steps toward so called “school reform” undertaken during his tenure.  Here are two changes being pushed through in this final week.

Newark is a school district operating under state control.  Cami Anderson, Newark’s state-appointed, Broad Academy-trained, caretaker superintendent, has asked Cerf to waive the seniority rights of perhaps 700 teachers to pave the way for mass firings and replacement of half of them, it is speculated, by cheaper Teach for America (TFA) recruits.  Anderson is a former TFA teacher and an executive with TFA.

Longtime New Jersey journalist Bob Braun reports that the mass firings are confirmed by sources in the teacher’s union and on the website of the Walton Family Foundation, which has “announced that they will support the recruitment, training and support of nearly 370 Newark area teachers over the next two years.”  Anderson’s request for Cerf’s approval is to be discussed at a meeting of the Newark School Board later today.  Cerf’s signature “would permit their firing without resort to the detenuring process.”  “To fire tenured teachers she (Anderson) must gain state approval of a ‘waiver’ of seniority rules.  Cerf, a strong backer of Anderson’s actions, is expected to grant the waiver.”

According to Braun, “The mass layoff of experienced teachers and their replacement by new and untrained college graduates is part of Anderson’s ‘One Newark’ plan that seeks to expand charter school enrollments, close conventional neighborhood public schools, and sell off school property. ‘Right-sizing’ staff and hiring ‘quality’ teachers are also mentioned in the latest version of the plan.”

And yesterday Diane Ravitch reported that Cerf is also expected this week to sign a request for the right-to-expand by Hoboken’s HoLa Dual Language Charter School.  HoLa charter school serves 11 percent children who qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch while the district has 72 percent of children who qualify.  While Hoboken’s school district is 25 percent white, HoLa is 61 percent white.  The district is 55 percent Hispanic; HoLa is 29 percent Hispanic.  Ravitch shares a powerful letter from Hoboken’s school superintendent, Dr. Mark Toback, asking Commissioner Cerf to deny the HoLa Dual Language Charter School request.

Toback describes unsustainable financial pressure on the one-square-mile school district as the charter school allocation has tripled since 2008.  “if you carry this pattern out to 2018 with the total requested expansion of HoLa to 405 students (an increase of almost 100 students) you can see how our traditional public district would fall into a state of crisis.  I do not believe that such a result is the intent of the charter movement and I know that such a result does not allow for a thorough and efficient education for all children in this community.”

Toback notes that while HoLa charter school does enroll some students who present special needs, the school and Hoboken’s three other charters “do not enroll students with significant disabilities.”

Toback also explains that charter schools can accept students with serious special needs and assign them to special schools outside the school district, but New Jersey law then requires the Hoboken public school district to pay for the special services it has no role in selecting.  Toback describes: “the incentive that exists statewide for charter schools to place students in out-of-district placements… By code, the cost for charter students placed out of district does not go to the charter school, but back to the traditional public school system.  As a result, a financial incentive is created for charter schools to place significantly disabled students in out-of-district placements as opposed to educating the students. Even more perplexing is the fact that we have very little input about those placements.  Despite the fact that the traditional district is responsible to pay for the out-of-district educational programs plus transportation costs, extended school year programs, and other costs, the charter school case managers remain responsible for carrying out the IEP.”

It will be important to watch how much damage Commissioner Cerf inflicts on New Jersey’s traditional public school districts in this final week as he leaves his position.