Bret Schundler’s top staff at the state Department of Education is shaping up into a mix of old and new, keeping in place several department veterans but also bringing in a roster of newcomers especially from the state’s school choice movement.
The commissioner's most important appointment has yet to arrive. Schundler has named Andrew Smarick, a well-known fellow with the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, to be his deputy commissioner, the No. 2 position in the department. He starts August 2.
Much of the speculation in Trenton is around the policies and politics that will come with Smarick, a big school choice advocate and vocal critic of urban school turnaround efforts.
Few doubt Smarick will seek to shake up the school establishment, and while he wouldn't comment last week, he has indicated his own interests in bringing changes specifically to Newark, a state-operated district at its own crossroads.
"I’m especially excited to get to lend a hand to the effort to improve Newark’s schools," Smarick wrote in, where he announced his new job.
"The city has a set of superb charter organizations, a remarkably strong nonprofit support infrastructure, and a hard-charging mayor."
A former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. education department and founder of an Annapolis, Md., charter school, Smarick is a big hit with certain reform groups in New Jersey.
"Andy Smarick's joining is a huge win for our state," said Kathleen Nugent, of Democrats for Education Reform—New Jersey. "As one of the foremost thinkers and strategists on education reform, he will prioritize initiatives that promise the greatest impact and steer a strong course for New Jersey education."
His former boss, Chester Finn Jr., president of Fordham Institute,said New Jersey should expect Smarick to make a mark on policy. And he said Smarick, whose salary will be $129,0000, also will provide Schundler key organizational and management skills.
"He gets things done when he says he will," Finn said. "And that’s especially critical in government."
"But he’ll also do so a quiet, self-effacing kind of way. He will not hesitate to shake the tree, but he’ll do it with a smile."
The people already in place in the department are an intriguing combination as well, reflecting the needs of a department that is clearly in some flux. Any change of administration brings change, but Schundler’s first five months have been especially tumultuous.
The state’s financial condition has led to deep staffing cuts in the department, and there have been some high-profile disagreements between Schundler and the man who matters most, Gov. Chris Christie. Some critics have called for legislative hearings and an “overhaul” of the department already, even before Schundler has put all his people in place.
Schundler last week refused to comment on any of his personnel picks. But it looks like he has vied for at least some stability in key places. He has retained three assistant commissioners from the last administration: Rochelle Hendricks, Barbara Gantwerk and Willa Spicer. Spicer was most recently deputy commissioner, but will be moved down to assistant commissioner in charge of standard and assessment, her areas of expertise. One notable departure under her is that of Timothy Peters, the state’s testing director, whose exit was announced last week.
Hendricks re-appointment is an important choice, too. She has headed the state’s charter school programs for several years, and now is being kept on as assistant commissioner in charge of the Division of School Effectiveness and Choice, a likely hotbed of Schundler’s reform proposals.
But no doubt, big changes are coming, too. On Wednesday, Schundler presented the state Board of Education afor the department that laid out where much of his focus will be.
There’s a new office for “professional compensation and contract standards,” for instance, pointing to upcoming proposals for new controls on teacher and administrator pay. Another office will focus on district consolidations.
Meanwhile, there will also be an office for "small learning communities and school culture," and one that would oversee the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the controversial school voucher bill still pending in the Legislature.
Already in place for some of those jobs are notable names from the state’s school choice movement. Valarie Smith, a former regional director in the U.S. Department of Education, will head the OSA division. Eric Taylor, a prominent South Jersey lawyer who has battled Camden City schools, will head the division of code and regulatory review. Both have worked with Excellent Education for Everybody (E3), the state’s most prominent school voucher organization.
In addition, a new research position is held by Jessani Gordon, the former head of the state’s charter school association, and the department’s chief legislative liaison is Chris Emigholz, formerly with the state’s business and industry association. Norris Clark, a Cape May County Republican and former Assembly candidate, leads a new parental information office.
These appointments so far are scarce in names from New Jersey’s familiar public education circles, such as district superintendents or lobbyists from the main associations. But few are much surprised by that, given Christie’s and Schundler’s clear agendas so far.
“They want to go outside the box and bring in people who support a more private sector approach,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the state’s school boards association. “This is part of the new normal, and everyone needs to adjust to it.”
Still, some key jobs are still not filled, including the assistant commissioner for finance, assistant commissioner for a new division of "professional excellence," focusing on teacher and administrator standards and quality, and also Schundler’s chief of staff.