State Education Chief Will Finally Meet with Key Senate Committee

Cerf, on the job for two years and controversial reform agenda in tow, will discuss issues and initiatives

After two years in office, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf will finally make his first appearance before the Senate Education Committee on Monday, with both broad and very specific issues on the minds of committee members.

Cerf has made a half-dozen public appearances before the Legislature since he took office, but he had yet to come before the influential Senate committee, in part due to political tug-of-war that led to delays in Cerf’s confirmation until last summer.

So, with the new year under way, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said she invited the commissioner to testify on Monday morning to open a dialogue on a host of education issues facing the state.

“This will give the Department of Education the opportunity to describe where they’ve been, where they are now, and where they see themselves moving into the future,” Ruiz said yesterday.

“This is meant to be an open and honest discussion with the department and what it sees its role with districts,” she said.

It is no secret that there has been plenty of tension with Democrats over Cerf’s and Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda, with its push to tighten spending and increase pressure on schools to improve. There’s also new student testing and stakes tied to that testing, and moves afoot to open the state’s first virtual schools.

Ruiz has been on board for some of those steps, most notably leading the overhaul of the state’s tenure-reform law last year, working closely with the administration, including Cerf.

And she said yesterday that Monday’s meeting is meant to be a “positive discussion” to discuss topics on which they both agree and disagree.

Cerf himself said yesterday that he looks forward to the discussion: “I worked closely with Sen. Ruiz on the tenure bill and value the collaborative relationship I have developed with her and other members of the Legislature.”

Among the key topics for her, Ruiz said, will be charter schools and her own work in drafting a bill to rewrite the state’s charter school law, school safety and the state’s own requirements, and the ongoing work on a statewide teacher evaluation system.

The last one is part of Ruiz’s tenure-reform law, and it has been a contentious one for districts feeling pressure to have the evaluations ready and running by next fall, as the law requires.

An outside report by Rutgers University on the progress so far is expected to be released by the administration in the next couple of weeks, and Ruiz said her own feedback from districts has been positive.

But she recognized there has been some angst in districts and wants to hear more from Cerf. “This will be an opportunity to discuss all that,” she said.

A month before Christie is to present his next state budget, Cerf will also surely face questions about his latest school-funding report and its proposals for adjusting the funding formula to give less extra aid districts with high concentrations of at-risk students.

Ruiz sponsored a resolution last week opposing the funding report and sending it back to Cerf to revise. But again, she yesterday held off on any criticism and said she wanted to hear first-hand from Cerf.

“This is an opportunity for both sides to be heard,” she said.

Even after two years on the job, Cerf’s department itself remains a work in progress.

He began reorganizing it once in 2011 and then did some tweaking of that reorganization last year. Now most of his top lieutenants are in place, although his office said he is still looking for someone for the post of chief improvement officer to oversee the new Regional Achievement Centers.

Cerf did make one high-profile hire recently in picking up former New York City schools’ finance chief, Photeine Anagnostopoulos, to serve as a special assistant. Cerf worked with Anagnostopoulos when both were deputies under former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein.

Anagnostopoulos, who briefly was chief budget officer for Newark Public Schools, will conduct a study of school spending in about a dozen districts and links to school performance. Her pay is $99,000.

“One of the least understood subjects in all of public education is what works, and what is the most effective way to spend resources to advance student learning,” Cerf said last week in describing the project.

“I simply asked [Anagnostopoulos] to unpack a bunch of budgets at a highly detailed level for some districts with great results, some with poor results, some urban, some suburbans and see what you can find out about where the money is going,” he said.

Cerf said there was no specific timetable for her work, but said, “The work is way too early to draw any conclusions.”

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