Speculation Swirls Around Cerf’s Successor, Impact on Policies and Pending Reforms

Will new education commissioner make own mark or simply pick up the baton?

chris cerf
In the last 20 years, New Jersey has had eight state education commissioners, a rate of roughly one every two-and-a-half years.

Now, with Chris Cerf’s announcement this week that he is leaving the post – in his case, after three full years — New Jersey is about to get another commissioner who will bring his or her own brand of leadership and management style to both education policy in the state and the operation of its 800-employee state Department of Education.

But with Cerf’s departure coming midway through Gov. Chris Christie’s stint as governor, the new education commissioner may be more beholden than most to what has happened before, implementing policies that have already been decided, rather than coming up with new ones.

Such was the sense yesterday in the reaction to Cerf’s plans to take a job as a chief executive at Amplify Inc., an educational software firm led by former New York City chancellor Joel Klein.

Above all else, the next commissioner will need to be someone who will implement – and maybe adjust — what Cerf had set in course, several observers said, be it new teacher-evaluation requirements or the state’s transition to the Common Core State Standards and new online testing.

“This is going to have to be a person who needs to figure out a way to make it all work,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “That’s a pretty tall order.”

The rumor mill was flying with speculation about who would be Cerf’s successor, something that Christie’s office would not divulge yesterday.

A short list gleaned from the speculation yesterday included the names of former commissioners David Hespe and Rochelle Hendricks, current assistant commissioners including Peter Shulman, and prominent district superintendents such as Brian Zychowski of North Brunswick. None of them would comment much yesterday, with an announcement expected in the coming weeks before Cerf leaves office at the end of the month.

There was plenty of reaction to Cerf’s departure itself, ranging from praise in a statement from Christie to a variety of comments from some of the education groups.

“For more than three years, Commissioner Cerf has served New Jersey as one of the most passionate and articulate voices for the greatest civil rights challenge of our time: delivering a high quality education for every child in our state, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status,” Christie said in a statement.

The New Jersey Education Association stood out as the most critical in its comments, with NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer starting a lengthy statement released in the afternoon with questions about whether Cerf would now be profiting from the state’s push toward more data-driven instruction and online testing.

“In Cerf’s new position, he and his company will profit from selling assessment products and services to public schools struggling to adapt to exactly the kind of misguided mandates that Cerf’s Department of Education is currently imposing on New Jersey’s schools,” the statement said. “While it is clearly a very good career move for Commissioner Cerf, he leaves New Jersey at a time when schools, educators and students are struggling with these new mandates.”

Amplify Insight, the division of Amplify that Cerf will lead, specializes in technology- driven assessment tools. State officials yesterday said the state has no standing or pending contracts with any Amplify divisions, nor does it appear to have any business in the four state-run districts of Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden.

A spokeswoman for Amplify yesterday said it has business in only two New Jersey school districts, Mount Olive and Elizabeth.

Beyond discussion about Cerf’s departure, attention yesterday also turned to what’s next. The state faces a long list of initiatives launched under Cerf, with some already under way and others moving to the forefront.

The state Assembly’s education committee held a lengthy hearing yesterday on the new standards and the upcoming testing. The NJEA was among several groups calling for delays in their implementation, or at least their consequences for districts and educators.

Cerf has opposed any delays, but would the next commissioner consider it?

Teacher evaluation has been among the prickliest topics for school districts, with deadlines in place for new student performance measures to be in place by this spring. The Christie administration has rebuffed requests for delays. Will the next commissioner?

Maybe most contentious has been the debate over the state’s long-term takeovers of districts like Newark and its recent takeover of Camden schools.

In each case, the state’s appointed superintendents have pressed for expanded charter schools to provide more opportunities for students, while Cerf has been a lightning rod for what community opponents assail as “privatization” of their districts.

As the policies proceed, will the next commissioner face the same criticism?

The new commissioner will also have to handle other issues that stir up less passion. For instance, the Christie administration is about to announce its new state budget, which is a routine process but also one that contains the districts’ all-important state-aid figures.

Many observers said yesterday that they hope the new schools chief will help bring some experience and stability to a job where so much uncertainly is swirling at the moment.

“He or she is going to have to step in on a dime,” said Lynne Strickland, the longtime executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools group. “We’re in the middle of a budget cycle, major policy initiatives under way. It will be helpful if that person knows how things work in Trenton and in the department as well.”

“We need a pragmatic pick, someone who can hit the ground running,” she said.

Zychowski, the North Brunswick superintendent rumored as a possible candidate for Cerf’s job but who was denying it yesterday, said that as a school leader, he hopes the next commissioner won’t bring a whole new set of initiatives.

“What I expect next is difficult implementation of what has started,” he said. “In some ways, we’re still at pre-implementation, and I am just hoping the next commissioner will stay focused on these . . . Let’s get this done.”

In an interview this week, Cerf agreed there is unfinished business for his successor to complete. He sent out a letter to school districts yesterday reflecting on what he considered his main accomplishments.

“All of that is in our rear-view mirror,” he said in the interview when asked about his policy accomplishments. “And yet all of that constitutes what is equally in the execution and implementation phase. So, if you want to characterize it as unfinished business, I would say that all of these lines of work are in need of continued and faithful implementation.”

While Cerf would not disclose whom he had recommended as his successor, he said he felt the department was in a good position to carry on his work.

“I think the department is really on a path to execute a lot of the initiatives that we have launched,” he said Monday. “I feel very good about the hands in which I am leaving it in.”

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