At least for the time being, they are the new power trio of the New Jersey Department of Education, guiding it as it seeks to move beyond the Race to the Top debacle.
With the firing last week of state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, Gov. Chris Christie appointed a new acting commissioner from the ranks of the department and named his policy director to be her chief of staff.
Already in the building, but only for a month, is a conservative analyst from Washington, D.C. who was to be named Schundler’s deputy but now is already on the short list to succeed him as the next education commissioner. .
Until that next commissioner is appointed it makes for an intriguing sharing of authority, as a host of education issues continue to swirl around the state, with or without a commissioner in place.
Rochelle Hendricks, acting commissioner
At her first state Board of Education meeting as the head of the department, Rochelle Hendricks faced more reporters than had probably attended all of the last year’s state board meetings. Combined.
But standing before the klieg lights and microphones, the assistant commissioner thrown into the top job didn’t flinch, saying the department would proceed with its work overseeing the state’s 2,500 schools.
“The leadership is actually somewhat stable, several of us who are veterans in the department, still here, still carrying the torch,” Hendricks said. “But the other piece of that. Is we are very committed to the reform agenda that Governor Christie has outlined, and we’re ready to step and make sure that agenda is implemented.”
The comments speak to Hendricks’ standing in the department, even before the Schundler’s ouster over the failed bid for federal Race to the Top funding. Seen as well-liked, calm and effective, she was, some said yesterday, the right person for these challenging times.
First hired in 1987, Hendricks has been most connected with the state’s charter school movement, directing the charter school office and overseeing it as assistant commissioner. But she has also served in a variety of positions overseeing such diverse areas as vocational education, policy and planning and professional development.
Still, she was a notable promotion under Schundler, getting the title as assistant commissioner for school innovation and effectiveness, in charge of Schundler’s — and Christie’s — pet issues of charter schools and school choice, including the controversial Opportunity Scholarship Act.
Gregg Edwards, chief of staff
Schundler might have done well to have someone like Gregg Edwards as his chief of staff from the start of his brief tenure.
A long-time Republican staffer in the state, Edwards has been a fixture in policy and government circles for more than two decades. He was executive director of the State Senate and chief of staff to former U.S. Rep Bob Franks, before becoming founding president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey.
With the new Republican administration, Edwards was named as Christie’s policy director in charge of all policy initiatives. He always said he would take a special interest in education after many years of pressing for school reform.
That interest is now critical, since through Schundler’s brief stay, Christie’s office didn’t appear to have the same active role in the education department as previous governors, whose appointed staffer often worked almost full-time coordinating policy between the governor and the commissioner.
That certainly ends with Edwards now in the building, and lobbyists and others watching from the outside said he will provide a stable hand after the tumult of the last few weeks.
“He brings the importance of the governor’s office to the department,” said Lynne Strickland, a longtime lobbyist and head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “He will help get the department back on track, and make sure the work gets done that needs to be done.”
Andrew Smarick, deputy commissioner
Smarick is the newcomer in the group, moving to the department only a month ago to serve as Schundler’s deputy but bringing with him a long paper – and video – trail about his views on school reform.
In his short time here, Smarick was seen as taking a key role in the state’s ill-fated Race to the Top application, serving on the team that conducted the pivotal interview in Washington, D.C. last month.
He is now rumored in media accounts as a strong candidate to take Schundler’s role, although the state board yesterday balked at officially naming him deputy, putting some of that in doubt.
Smarick has made a national name as an analyst and commentator with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and American Enterpise Institute, conservative think-tanks in Washington.
A founder of a charter school in Maryland, he has been a strong advocate of charter schools and school choice, and has written extensively of the plight of inner-city parochial schools.
He may be most controversial in his views that failing schools should be shuttered and reopened anew.
“We’ve tried drastic fixes of the most chronically underperforming schools before and they generally haven’t worked,” Smarick wrote in a blog for the American Enterprise Institute in 2009. “The for-profit sector has also found that its lowest performers seldom go from the very bottom to the top. Hence my advocacy for closures and new starts.”
He was writing specifically about new federal grants — apart from the Race to the Top — that are steered to turnaround efforts for state’s lowest-performing schools. New Jersey has 12 such schools under the program, slated to spend more than $45 million in the next three years.
Still, in the same entry, he acknowledged the program has moved ahead, and his final words spoke to what some describe as his collaborative and inquisitive approach.
“The die is cast, I’ve lost, and we’re about to pursue school turnarounds with vigor,” he said. “My hope now is that the [federal] department undertakes an evaluation of this effort … so we can learn from this massive investment and be better positioned in the future to address the nation’s lowest-performing schools.”