Passion is a word that comes up often when talking about Ilan Plawker, whether the discussion turns on his stint as vice president of the state Board of Education or his advocacy for public schools in general.
“It was all about the children, putting the children first,” said Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the state assemblywoman who first met Plawker in 1997 when they both ran as Democrats for state Senate.
Raised in Brooklyn and a longtime resident of Englewood Cliffs, Plawker died on Thursday of lymphoma. He was 78 years old.
Just a day before his death, Plawker had been reelected as vice president of the state board. He was absent from the meeting, and the board’s president, Arcelio Aponte, said his reelection was testament to his popularity and respect.
“Ilan really loved being on the state board,” Aponte said yesterday. “And he was just a wonderful person to have on the board, because of that passion and insight.”
Plawker, a retired business owner and an Englewood Cliffs councilman and local school board member for more than two decades, had tested the waters of statewide politics through the 1990s in several failed election bids to the Legislature.
But appointed to the state board in 2009 by then-Gov. Jon Corzine, Plawker found the opportunity to leave his mark on several key education issues.
Ever pleasant but equally outspoken, Plawker was intent on making sure the board’s voice was heard in debates that had moved to the more political arenas of the Legislature and the Governor’s office.
“He always felt the board had more to offer in terms of substance in these discussions,” Aponte said.
One big issue for him was vocational educational and his quest for more pathways for children to pursue college and careers. Another was the persistent achievement gaps among students from different income and racial groups.
Lately, he had thrown himself into the debates over the efficacy of the state’s anti-bullying law, holding meetings on his own to try to reach some consensus on how best to implement the law’s strict requirements.
Among those he met with several times was Huttle, the prime sponsor of the law in the Assembly. She said he always wanted to make the law workable, and he took seriously the concerns of many educators that it was unbending and that they needed more guidance from the state.
“He was the biggest advocate for cutting through the bureaucracy and making the law work,” the assemblywoman said.
Plawker was one of the few state board members who could be seen at school events held by Gov. Chris Christie and state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, who said Plawker often joined him on visits to classroom.
The commissioner commented that Plawker not only was devoted to the issues, but “he dedicated the later part of his life to doing something about it.”
“When you talk about people in New Jersey who are wholly committed to making sure that every child receives a high-quality education, Ilan Plawker would surely be at the top of that list,” the commissioner said.
“I am grateful for the energy and passion Ilan brought to education in New Jersey,” he said. “He will be deeply missed.”