The hearing in the Statehouse committee room was ostensibly for the confirmation of Chris Cerf as New Jersey’s education commissioner, a formality at this point for a man who’s been on the job as acting commissioner for more than 18 months.
In the end, the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Cerf by a unanimous vote, releasing the nomination for an all but certain confirmation by the full Senate on Monday.
But the committee’s four-hour-long interview yesterday was also part of the continuing power play by the Legislature to show its relevance in what has become an increasingly aggressive education agenda under Gov. Chris Christie.
Time and again, Senators pressed Cerf to work more closely with the Legislature in crafting its policies, from education funding to charter schools to even one question about medicating students.
After the state Department of Education approved a series of online charter schools, for instance, the Legislature proposed its own moratorium.
When the administration this spring sought to rewrite the state’s funding formula as part of the state budget, Democrats reminded Cerf yesterday that they removed the language from the budget and told the governor to come back with separate legislation.
“Do you agree that it’s the role of the legislature to enact a school funding formula?” state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) asked Cerf at one point.
And it wasn’t just Democrats saying they felt left out. State Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren) spoke at length about his own preferences to revamp how state aide is distributed to local districts, ones also not in concert with Christie, either.
“I think we ceded this authority, and we should take it back,” Doherty said at one point. “I think we have the least say of the three branches of government, and that’s not consistent with the oath of office we took.”
Whether the Legislature will regain that power is a work in progress, maybe buttressed by the recent passage of a tenure reform bill that drew a rare consensus of both political parties, the administration, and key stakeholder groups.
Still, that same bill also waits for Christie to sign it, something he has said he will do, but is at close to a month and counting.
The very reason for the confirmation hearing, of course, was to give the Legislature a say in Cerf’s appointment to the highest education post in the state. And that, too, has proven its own drama since Cerf took office in January, 2011.
Such nominations are rarely contested, but this one hit a wall when state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) would not give his consent under the Legislature’s internal rules of senatorial courtesy due, to some differences with Cerf’s background and education philosophy. At the time, Cerf lived primarily in Montclair, and Rice held power as a Senator in Essex County.
With Rice only stiffening in his resolve, Cerf took up an apartment in Montgomery for what he said was its shorter commute to Trenton. It also happened to be represented by Republican Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset), who was content to sign off on his nomination.
For the past several months, there was a back and forth about where Cerf resided, with his family staying in Montclair and the acting commissioner returning there on weekends, but he ultimately registered to vote in Montgomery and even changed his license.
While the source of much rumor and whispers in the Statehouse, the issue yesterday ended up taking up surprisingly little time in the hearing beyond the opening exchange with the committee’s chairman state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union).
It was his very first question: “Mr. Cerf, where do you live?”
And from there he grilled the commissioner on why he moved, why the commute was so bad when he had a driver, and even why Montgomery at all, still a half hour drive from Trenton.
“The argument that you moved to Montgomery to get closer to work, I’m not buying it,” Scutari said. “You moved there to be in Sen. Bateman’s district.”
But Cerf didn’t balk from his initial and sometimes elaborate reasoning, including the tax implications of having a state driver. “I think I’m in close touch with what my motives and intentions are,” he said.
And as quickly as the topic arose, Scutari then called it settled, and moved onto the rest of the hearing, with it barely to be mentioned again.
There were some other highlights, too. Charter schools took up much of the discussion, with senators pressing Cerf on especially online schools to be more cautious and deliberate.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) was the sponsor of the moratorium bill in the Senate, which remains pending, and she said there were too many open questions about the efficacy of the schools and the state’s role.
And it was a message that Cerf appeared in this case to agree with, pointing to the department’s decision this month to postpone two of the charters that would be all-online programs. Two others with hybrid models were allowed to proceed.
“De facto, that is what we have done,” Cerf said of the moratorium. “When we gave a planning year to two of the virtual schools, we basically said that in the next year, we will engage in that process. Not just about the schools themselves, but our ability as a state to monitor and manage them.”
There were also other pointed lines of questioning. State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) wanted Cerf to do more in enforcing rules against nepotism and cronyism in his hometown of Elizabeth schools, a long-running issue for the senator.
Doherty, in addition to his questions about school funding, was the one who raised the issue about the medication of students for learning disabilities when he said there were other alternatives.
Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, broached some sensitive ethical issues for the commissioner as well, especially around Cerf’s relationship with various private education companies and consultancies in his years prior to becoming commissioner.
She endorsed Cerf’s confirmation, but asked him to be sensitive to even perceived conflicts. “I would urge you to sharpen that antennae, particularly in the environment we exist in,” he said.
That brought one of the few points of tension to the hearing, with Cerf asking Weinberg to clarify her remarks. “I want to be very careful that you are not misheard around the issue of ethics, which can be a very loaded word,” he said.
But in the end, Cerf drew unanimous support from the committee and looked assured to finally win the right to take the “acting” capacity off his title as the state’s commissioner of education.
‘I’m going to say yes,” Weinberg said of her vote, ”and I’m hoping we will hear from you often.”