State Board of Education Struggles to Redefine Itself

John Mooney, Education writer | September 15, 2010 | Education
In the wake of the Schundler ouster, New Jersey’s Board of Education has been testing it’s muscle -- and its vocal cords

For much of the past two decades, New Jersey’s State Board of Education has had to struggle for respect, if not relevance.

But the board appears to be earning a bit of both, inside Trenton and beyond. With the state Department of Education in flux after the firing of Bret Schundler as education commissioner, board members charged with overseeing the department are speaking out on issues and personnel.

That outspokenness may well increase in volume, as Gov. Chris Christie continues to put his stamp on the 13-member board. This week he announced two more appointments, both prominent.

Christie nominated Peter Simon, of Green Village, a former Kidder Peabody executive and now co-chairman of William E. Simon & Sons, a firm founded by his father, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary. Among many affiliations, Simon has served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, a prominent pro-voucher organization.

Also nominated was Claire Chamberlain Eckert, of Bernardsville, a former vice president at Goldman Sachs & Co. and a member of the state Republican committee. She also lists on her resume “political fundraising” for Republican candidates and president to the Peck School board of trustees.

That makes three nominations so far for the new governor, after he named Jack Fornaro of Oxford last month. All three are awaiting Senate confirmation. And with at least one more vacancy to fill as well, Christie’s appointees could give him another arena to help forward his reform plans for public education.

Point of Debate

Yet what exactly is the board’s role is its own point of debate, with recent events pushing that debate further.

Officially, the board is charged with reviewing and approving senior staff appointments and department regulations involving hot-button topics like student testing, teacher certification, graduation requirements and school curricula.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the typical review, recent commissioners have sought to seize more authority, pushing through executive powers over some regulations and taking full control of legal decisions that previously came before the entire board. Christie’s transition committee this winter recommended that the board be moved to an advisory role altogether, “with a central focus on long‐term planning.”

Used to such power struggles, however, the board has carefully picked its spots. This month it quietly stepped into the fray of the Schundler fracas, preventing the former commissioner’s deputy from succeeding him, at least in the short-term.

Refusing to Go Along

In the first meeting after Schundler’s ouster, the board would not formally approve Andrew Smarick as deputy commissioner. Smarick, selected by Schundler, is best known as a senior fellow and commentator for two conservative think-tanks in Washington, D.C.

The action came in closed session and no reason was given. But without speaking specifically about Smarick, some board members said they reserved their right to approve people they felt most qualified for the positions selected.

“The board’s role is to promote high quality education, and I think we did what we thought was the right thing for the department,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president.

Aponte sought to downplay the move as political muscle-flexing, but he has been outspoken in saying he hopes the board will play a more prominent and public role in setting education policy.

Putting Pressure On the Department

He has cited the board’s pressure on the department to shore up its alternative testing for high school graduation, and hopes the board will have greater say over controversial new regulations like capping superintendent pay. Those regulations, as proposed by Christie, would not need either board or legislative approval.

“Approval authority would be best,” Aponte said, “but at least give us a chance to weigh in. We’re not even part of the discussion at this point.”

The dean of the board is Ronald Butcher, who was first appointed in 1990 by then-Gov. Jim Florio and a veteran of previous debates over what role the board should play.

“The question is how much public input do you want, how transparent you want the process to be,” he said. “The state board is the agency head, and to the degree we need to demonstrate that, we will.”

As for the three new members who will likely join his ranks in the next few months, Butcher he said the governor has the right to appoint whom he chooses.

“That’s his prerogative,” Butcher said. “The governor has an agenda he wants to push, and he can appoint the people who will best advance that agenda.”