NJ Education 2011: Whom to Watch, What to Expect

Five Garden State heavyweights who can alter the course of education in the coming year

As if anyone could doubt it after last year, Gov. Chris Christie said education will be the center of his attention in 2011. If so, he won’t be alone.

Public charter schools and private school vouchers. School budgets and school taxes. Teacher tenure and teacher evaluation. And how — and how much — New Jersey will pay the people who work in our schools.

On literally every one of those issues, 2011 could mark significant if not historic decisions by state and local leaders, from Christie on down.

With input from more than a dozen of New Jersey’s education heavyweights — from pols to teachers, and lobbyists to administrators — NJ Spotlight suggests a short list of men and women to keep an especially keen eye on in the next year.

Chris Christie, Governor

Begin with the obvious: everything started and ended with Chris Christie in 2010 and that’s not expected to change much in 2011.

In education, the governor has taken on the powerful New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) like no one before, imposed unprecedented limits on school taxes and spending, and vowed more big changes in how schools operate.

This year that agenda takes further shape, starting with Christie’s next state budget this spring, which will surely include changes in how Trenton pays for schools.

If that were not enough, Christie has pledged to expand charter schools and to reduce the tenure protections and maybe the paychecks of teachers. A historic cap on superintendent pay is already set for a February launch.

The questions are many: will Christie continue his take-no-prisoners style, or will compromise become one of his weapons? And does he have more surprises in store?

Chris Cerf, Education Commissioner Designate

Chances are that some of more interesting answers will come from the newest player in Trenton.

Cerf, the former deputy chancellor of New York City schools, will be the first person in nearly two decades to lead the New Jersey’s education department who is not from inside the state’s school or political establishment.

To be sure, he has signed on to the governor’s education agenda with both hands, but the registered Democrat is also savvy enough to have guaranteed himself some room to bring in some of his own ideas as well. This is a guy who brought actual grades to New York City schools and closed nearly 100 of them. He doesn’t hide his love for charter schools in New Jersey, either.

And as much as the state and its schools sometimes think they are the center of the universe, Cerf also brings a contact list that includes the likes of Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., superintendent, and Arne Duncan, the U.S. Education Secretary.

But Cerf wouldn’t have reached his heights without knowing how to play the game, even if now in a different state. Still, it will take time for him to fill out his leadership team, and he has openly said he wants to listen first — with even the NJEA a likely bet to get an audience.

Teresa Ruiz, Chair of Senate Education Committee

For most of Christie’s proposals on tenure, funding and school choice to actually happen in 2011, they will need to gain approval of the legislature, a Democrat-controlled legislature.

And that means first and foremost, a stop before the senator from Newark with a few of her own proposals.

Ruiz, in only her first term, has become the Democrats’ most visible point person on education, with maybe a close second going to Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, committee chairman in the other chamber.

Not waiting for Christie, Ruiz has crafted a bill nearing passage that would change how charter schools are approved and monitored, and is already working on one to rewrite the rules of teacher tenure.

A bit more deliberate than Christie — her committee’s hearing to just start the discussion on tenure reform lasted five hours and more than a dozen speakers. She also brings plenty of backing from Essex County political powerhouses that will ensure her a place at the table when the decisions are made.

Cory Booker, Newark Mayor

If Newark is New Jersey’s national story when it comes to schools, the charismatic mayor is its emcee. And whatever happens, it should prove an intriguing show.

It starts with the $100 million gift to Newark schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, an event in 2010 that won an appearance on Oprah and visits from People magazine and Geraldo Rivera. The year 2011 could be the unprecedented philanthropy’s year of reckoning with decisions on how its spent, and Booker has led an unprecedented campaign that he says will not disappoint.

A mention in the Democrats’ list of potential gubernatorial candidates, Booker has forged a strong working relationship with Christie and Cerf that will surely give the mayor a central voice. One of the key ones will be in Christie’s and Cerf’s choice in 2011 of the district’s next superintendent.

Helen Hoens, Associate Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court

This entry could probably go to the whole court, but Hoens stands out as a potential swing vote when the court wastes little time starting up in the new year.

This Wednesday at 10 a.m. sharp, the state’s highest court will hear oral arguments on the Abbott v. Burke school equity case now on its 20th decision.

On the docket are the very principles of the three-decade-old court debate and its multibillion-dollar legacy for the state’s poorest schools. Advocates say it must be given a chance to succeed, Christie thinks its time for a radical change. The court’s decision could have profound impact on school funding statewide, not to mention the court’s own makeup under Christie.

Hoens could prove the much-watched vote in that decision. Along with Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, the author of the last decision, Hoens last time sided with a formula that provided extra funding for districts with high concentrations of at-risk students. But unlike LaVecchia, Hoens is a Republican and up for reappointment by Christie.