Christie Moves Quickly to Build School Board

By losing no time in filling vacancies with his appointees, Gov. Christie is quietly transforming the tenor of the Board of Education

Claire Eckert, one of Gov. Christie's recent appointees to the state Board of Education, being sworn into office.
Typically appointed by subsequent governors, members of the state Board of Education serve staggered terms as a way to provide some political stability to the panel that influences much of state education policy and regulation.

But in the last year, Gov. Chris Christie has not-so-quietly shaken up the membership of the once-sleepy body, appointing nearly half of the 13 members. His fifth and sixth appointments are to be sworn in when the board meets today.

The governor’s move to fill vacancies can benefit his agenda. The board sets the administrative code that dictates how state laws and policies are to be implemented. It also approves senior staff to the department, a timely topic as acting Commissioner Chris Cerf is set to announce a sweeping reorganization.

But a few new board members have stirred some debate, as various Democrats and others have raised questions about their qualifications.

Taking it to the Limit

Christie’s unlikely to stop with six appointees, with two more available and another coming in the next year, according to the governor’s office. With one more after that in 2013, Christie could ultimately name 10 of the board’s 13 members.

The governor’s flexing of power in the state board is not unprecedented. But a confluence of timing and opportunity has give Christie a chance to quickly fill an unusual numbers of expiring terms and vacancies. In fact, just having all 13 seats occupied is a first in several years.

“It is unusual to have so many appointments within one term,” said Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president, who was first appointed five years ago by former Gov. Jon Corzine. “I think others have had the opportunity, but not necessarily taken advantage of them like this one.”

If — or how much — the new members will change the board’s course is yet to be seen. Cerf, the governor’s appointed commissioner, has controlled much of the state’s education policy. The board has been relegated in recent years to more of a regulatory role in setting administrative code.

Still, the board does delve into broader issues now and again, and it must sign off on key department personnel, including most senior staff. And even administrative code has broad impact on policy, such as how schools will put in place special education programs or the specifics of state testing and graduation requirements.
While the board rarely bucks the administration outright, it has been known to temper or stall certain initiatives or staff appointments — much to the frustration of whatever administration is in office.

That seems less likely with Christie’s newest members. Cerf continues to lay out reform proposals on teacher and administrator quality, and school and district accountability. Cerf is also presenting his reorganization of the department today, something the board must approve.

In some ways, the impact of the newest members is already being felt on the board’s monthly meetings, as they bring up pointed questions that often echo Christie’s outspoken education policies, especially about cost-savings.

Critical Questioning

So far, the atmosphere on the board has remained mostly congenial. But some Democratic legislators and others have been critical of a few appointees.

State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), a member of the Senate judiciary committee, questioned several of them during confirmation hearings and said she was disappointed with their lack of background in public education and issues.

One of the latest appointees, Mark Biedron, came under Gill’s fire for what she said was a potential conflict as a founder of a private school that could benefit from a proposed school voucher program. Gill was the lone dissent in the final Senate vote.

Another appointee, Peter Simon, has been a vocal proponent and contributor to school voucher programs nationwide. And Gill was critical of Christie appointee Claire Eckert, who said at her confirmation hearing that she knew little about Abbott v. Burke, the state’s epic school equity case.

“If looking at the total, few have any public school experience or background, and their understanding of Abbott and issues of school funding is totally lacking,” Gill said yesterday.

“They all say they will get up to speed,” Gill said, “but there are some complicated issues coming up that require some background beyond just doing academic readings.”

Aponte, the board’s president, said the new members have brought new perspectives and backgrounds that have helped round out the board.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful that the two new members bring the same energy as the four other [Christie appointees],“ he said. “And I think they all also bring us credibility with the governor, which also helps.”

Aponte is also hoping for the new members’ support as he seeks reelection as the board’s president. Ilan Plawker has been nominated as vice president, replacing Ronald Butcher. That board vote is taking place today as well.