Christie to Name New Education Commissioner by Year End

The possibilities make for a crowded pack. Here are some in the running, past and present

Ever since Gov. Chris Christie ousted Bret Schundler as his education commissioner in late summer, trying to determine who he’ll name in his place has been something of a guessing game.

Christie promoted assistant commissioner Rochelle Hendricks to acting commissioner, adding her to the list of candidates. Former Washington, DC, superintendent Michelle Rhee’s name surfaced briefly, but then was discounted.

Now Christie’s office said he will make a decision by the end of the month, and the rumors — some informed, some not so much — have intensified. Here are a few of the most mentioned names:

Rochelle Hendricks

A state Department of Education employee since 1987, Hendricks is one sure finalist for the post after serving as Christie’s acting commissioner, and winning support from a cross-section of interests. She brings a combination of department experience and an outspoken voice for reform, especially on school choice, having led the department’s charter school office. But also known for her pleasant and collegial manner, is she tough enough for Christie?

Christopher Cerf

A former New York City deputy schools chancellor and education advisor to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Cerf was considered a finalist for the New Jersey post after Christie was elected. Schundler won the job, but Cerf’s name has never gone away. He is former president of Edison Schools Inc. and was a close and respected strategist to former NYC Chancellor Joel Klein. A Montclair resident, he is now CEO of Sangari Global Education. Cerf, after his years under Bloomberg, would be no stranger to working for a strong-willed boss.

Deborah Gist

The state education commissioner of Rhode Island, Gist may be best known for the controversy that was stirred up when she allowed the overhaul of the low-performing Central Falls High School, starting with the firing of its teachers. Her position may now be in flux with the election of a new governor, who was supported by the teachers unions, and she was apparently looking around for alternatives, including New Jersey. But with word that she could survive, a move to New Jersey may look less appealing. Still, just the prospect that she has already roiled Rhode Island’s teachers unions must surely be music to Christie’s ears.

Andrew Smarick

Brought in by Schundler to be his deputy, he was the first mentioned as a successor after Schundler’s ouster. Smarick made his name as a conservative commentator for two Washington, DC, think-tanks, and was a favorite of the reform crowd. But the state Board of Education wouldn’t give him the deputy title for lack of experience, and his star has dimmed a bit as he waits his fate in a role as “special assistant” to the commissioner.

Michelle Rhee

Even when ruled out by virtually everyone as a real possibility, Rhee remains the most provocative option on many levels. Outspoken and controversial, she overhauled DC’s schools, and Christie hasn’t hidden his hope she’d do the same here. But she has said she would not take the job, and Christie’s staff has said the same. Still, she showed up on a video released by the governor last week praising his agenda. She has surprised before.

Other Names:

David Hespe, former state education commissioner and now Willingboro assistant superintendent; Richard Kaplan, New Brunswick superintendent and former deputy commissioner; Jean-Claude Brizard, Rochester (NY) superintendent; John King, NYC deputy commissioner; Brian Zychowski, North Brunswick superintendent and chair of Christie’s teacher evaluation task force.