Cerf Starts Reorg with Charter Office

John Mooney | March 10, 2011 | Education
Revamped office to play key role in acting commissioner's and governor's plans

Almost two months into the job, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has begun to reorganize his department, starting with the charter school office that will be at the center of a major policy priority for Gov. Chris Christie.

The office that approves new charters and oversees existing ones will be expanded from five to 14 employees, a spokesman said, with the existing staff yesterday given only a promise that they can reapply for their posts. Otherwise, they will have the chance at other positions in the 700-employee department.

The office’s director has yet to be named, but Carly Bolger, a recent addition to the department from a Philadelphia charter school organization, has been named in the interim to lead the division, confirmed spokesman Alan Guenther.

The shakeup comes as charter schools garner considerable attention statewide, with Christie pressing for their expansion and some questioning whether they are any better than traditional public schools.

Under Cerf, the administration last month approved 23 new charters, the largest single group in the state’s history. Ninety–seven charter schools have now been approved.

Yet at the same time, the department’s ability to properly review and oversee charter schools has come into question. A new round of applications is due on March 31. Legislation is pending to expand the number of authorizing, or approving, agencies in the state.

Charter school advocates were encouraged by news of the reorganization.

“We are not familiar with the specific details of the plan, but in general we are excited to hear the news that Acting Commissioner Cerf is reorganizing and expanding the charter office,” said Carlos Perez, director of the state’s charter school association.”

“As the number of charters schools in New Jersey continues to grow,” he said, “it’s vitally important to have an office within the DOE that can act as a quality authorizer.”

On the same day, the department also announced that it had placed two charter schools on probation and sent a warning letter to a third.

The two on probation are Trenton Community Charter School and the University Academy Charter School in Jersey City. Jersey City Community Charter School was issued the letter of warning. All three were cited for a range of concerns, including low achievement levels of some of their students. The two placed on probation were also cited for financial and programmatic shortcomings.

The reviews were done as part of the annual renewals of charter schools, this time about a dozen schools, officials said.

The commissioner “said that charter schools, by themselves, are not the answer,” said Guenther, in releasing the letters. “The state must continue to open excellent new charter schools, while maintaining high standards for the existing charters.”

He said the letters “put charter school operators on notice that they will be required to provide the best education for their students.”