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Opinion: Chris Cerf's Decision to Leave Education Post is New Jersey's Loss

If the Garden State is truly committed to education reform, it will find another commissioner cut from the same cloth

laura waters
Laura Waters

Someone ought to give Chris Cerf a flak suit as he parachutes out of Gov. Chris Christie’s shrinking inner circle. New Jersey’s departing Commissioner of Education has a new gig at the education technology firm Amplify Insight, but warm wishes are scant.

Instead, critics are lobbing rocks at Cerf for two perceived transgressions: one, his shift to the private sector, particularly to a company with a sullied reputation in the Garden State, and two, his education agenda, which some regard as insufficiently deferential to traditional public schools.

Let’s get the first one out of the way. Last week Cerf announced his descent from the pristine tower of the Department of Education to the debased netherworld of Amplify Insight, a private company that sells data services to support student assessments.

Immediately the NJEA lobbed this blitz: “[Amplify] will profit from selling assessment products and services to public schools struggling to adapt to exactly the kind of misguided mandates that Cerf’s Department of Education is currently imposing on New Jersey’s schools.”

Newark Teacher Union chief Joseph Del Grosso groused, “I look for commissioners who are champions of public schools, period.” Echoed another critic last week in these pages, “Cerf is . . . sliding back and forth between the private and public sector.”

In other words, say his critics, Cerf is trading on private connections and engaging in corrupt behavior by taking a job with a company partially controlled by ogre Rupert Murdoch and managed by Joel Klein, former chancellor of the NYC school system and derider-in-chief of teacher tenure rules. (See Steven Brill’s “The Rubber Room.”) Even worse, “Amplify Insight” is actually an alias for a company called “Wireless Generation,” which has a pockmarked history with New Jersey.

Chris Cerf’s new job at Amplify Insight/Wireless, then, may seem like a bridge too far for New Jerseyans who remember our adventures with Race to the Top, the Obama Administration’s federal grant program for states willing to commit to high standards, accountability, equity, and choice.

Back in 2010 then-Commissioner Lucille Davy, who served under former Gov. Jon Corzine, bypassed established bidding processes and chose Wireless to vet our Race to the Top application. The next-to-final draft included assurances from the DOE, NJEA, and local school districts that NJ would adopt the Common Core State Standards, expand school choice, adapt new assessments aligned with the Common Core, and reform tenure.

Failure often has many fathers. In this case, Wireless, aka Amplify, was one of them, responsible for a five-point loss on a trivial funding question. But the primary progenitor was Christie, who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by overturning Commissioner Bret Schundler’s entente with the NJEA over tenure reform and forcing a last-minute submission with no union buy-in.

All this history predates Chris Cerf’s term as commissioner Would critics lob those bombs if Cerf took a job, say, at Apple, another creature from the murky depths of private enterprise that supplies public schools with necessary technology?

The second item in dispute is Cerf’s legacy, or whether his voice and his work will lead to better student outcomes. To me, his signature accomplishment is shredding the pretense of equity within New Jersey’s public school system.

As recently as 2011, just as Cerf started his term, then-NJEA President Barbara Keshishian declaimed that NJ’s education success is “irrefutable” and our achievement gap “is a classic straw man” You’d be hard pressed to find someone who makes that argument today, although some still resort to the complacent canard that abolishing poverty is the only roadmap to ameliorating student achievement in poor urban school districts.

Cerf eloquently drove home the message that New Jersey has two separate and unequal school systems, one for families who can afford to live in affluent neighborhoods and another for families who can’t. We buy into school districts as if they’re yacht clubs.

Cerf’s voice in New Jersey’s education evolution, then, is clear, although we’ll have to wait for results. Certainly it seems likely that students enrolled in Camden Public Schools, taken over by the DOE last fall under Cerf’s watch, will benefit from the opportunity to choose to attend highly regarded KIPP or Mastery charter schools. Most would agree that all children, regardless of ZIP code, should have access to similarly ambitious course content. There’s consensus that teacher evaluations should be informed, to one extent or another, by student outcomes.

Historian Jonathan Alter wrote an essay in 2010 called “The State of Liberalism” in which he described the Democratic Party’s struggle (yes, Cerf is a card-carrying Democrat) to reconcile “a tactical split within liberalism itself.”

On one side are “action liberals,” or “policy-oriented pragmatists who use their heads to get something important done, even if their arid deal-making and Big Money connections often turn off the base.” On the other side are “movement liberals,” “dreamy idealists” who have great heart and imagination but “over¬indulge in fine whines, appear naïve about political realities, and prefer emotionally satisfying gestures to incremental but significant change.”

Alter uses education reform as an example of this tactical split within the Democratic Party: “Obama and the reformers are on one side,” he says, while on the other side are “hidebound adult interest groups (especially the National Education Association) that have until recently dominated the party.”

Cerf is an “action liberal,” pragmatic and policy-oriented, currently assaulted by “movement liberals” who fear even incremental change. We were lucky to have him. I’ll hope for a new commissioner who’s equally committed to action, undeterred by political gunfire, and devoted to New Jersey’s schoolchildren.

Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics at her blog NJ Left Behind, at NJ Spotlight, WHYY/NewsWorks, and other venues. She serves on the Lawrence Township Board of Education (Mercer County) and was president for nine years. A former instructor at SUNY Binghamton in a program that served educationally disadvantaged students from New York's inner cities, she holds a Ph.D. in early American literature from Binghamton. Her views are her own.

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