NJ Education Commissioners Share Notes on the Job

Five former commissioners reunite for panel to discuss politics and policy

With New Jersey’s education commissioner seat still unfilled, five of the most recent commissioners gathered in Princeton last night to muse about the current state of education in the Garden State, how we got here and where we are going.

The panel discussion was hosted by Legal One Partners, a consortium of school advocacy organizations, and moderated by NJ Spotlight founding editor and education writer John Mooney.

The topics ranged from school funding to charter schools, from the capacity of the state’s education department to the high-octane rhetoric of Gov. Chris Christie. Among those on the panel was Bret Schundler, the commissioner who Christie fired after a dispute over the state’s Race to the Top application.

David Hespe, NJ commissioner, 1999-2001
Interim superintendent of schools, Willingboro

“Change is messy, and change is going to need a political process for profound change to occur. Change is a huge boulder, and I have seen education reforms get tired just walking around this boulder. There is only one way to move this, and that is to take the biggest crowbar you can find to get the leverage. It’s going to be messy and you’re going to step on some folks’ toes. Are we seeing the byproduct of that now and a big change process? That remains to be seen.

Vito Gagliardi, NJ commissioner, 2001
Education consultant, including expert witness in schools law cases

“I don’t think any of the things we have said can happen without a functioning Department of Education. I think the capacity of the department to do what they must do must be looked at. I think the capacity must be refocused and a determination be made.”

William Librera, NJ commissioner, 2002-2005
Executive director, Rutgers Institute to Improve Student Achievement

“I regret I was not as successful as I wanted to be in changing the nature of the discussion away from charters vs. public schools as we now define it, which I think is unfortunate, and instead to emphasize public school choice, because that is what we need. Public school choice can go beyond charters, it is not synonymous, and given the fact we have stacked the deck against charters has not helped us expand the opportunities. You can do that inside districts. It’s good for teachers, its good for kids, and it’s good for parents as well.”

Lucille Davy, NJ commissioner, 2005-2010
Senior advisor, Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy

“We rely so heavily on property taxes and when the bottom falls out on the state level from the revenue perspective, it makes it very difficult to fund these school finance formulas. The School Finance Reform Act was funded two years in a row, but unfortunately with the economic difficulties that the nation faced and we faced, it made it impossible. I would have liked to have seen what would have happened had we been able to continue the funding of SFRA going forward. I believe it did bring balance to all districts, and it brought additional resources to the children who needed it most.”

Bret Schundler, NJ commissioner, 2010
Job hunting in the finance and/or education fields

“Politics will always be there in education, it’s an institutional reality. But the only way to have decisions made that are of interest of the public is to have them on the front page of the newspaper in ways that engage the public. You can be on the front page and have lots of lousy decisions made, but you will never have really good decisions made unless the public is out there fighting for its interest. We have a potential now because of how education has increased as a political issue, there is a potential for positive reforms to be made.”