Too Soon for Legacy, Christie’s Education Record Continues to Shape Issues

John Mooney | August 31, 2015 | Education
Critics waste no time ‘welcoming’ Cerf to Newark, funding shortfalls persist in puzzling and plaguing policymakers and pols

Newark Superintendent of Schools Chris Cerf helped mentor his predecessor, Cami Anderson, in the job he now holds.
The start of the school year is anything but routine for New Jersey educators and families, but this time around it should also prove to be an interesting ride for Garden State politicians and policymakers — especially a certain governor hoping to make a run for the White House.

So far, Gov. Chris Christie’s talk about education in his quest for the Republican nomination has focused on how much he dislikes teachers unions and why he reversed his position on the Common Core State Standards.

But the state’s public schools face a few more-pressing issues this fall, some of which may directly involve Christie’s education record.

Here are a few of them:

Newark schools, post-Cami Anderson

The Newark public schools were to be Christie’s showpiece, a district going through massive change even before Christie arrived, ones that were only accelerated by the $100 million donation by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that the governor helped cement.

Appointing Cami Anderson to lead the state-run district in 2011, Christie said it would be a model of education reform for the nation. Charter schools — another Christie favorite cause — would continue to thrive, and a teachers contract negotiated by Anderson would bring the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses to educators.

But that was then, and the tumultuous past year in the state’s largest district is hardly a model for anyone. Anderson’s reforms brought, at best, mixed results in student performance, and protests over her most severe measures ultimately led to Christie letting her go from the post this summer.

Now, Anderson has been replaced by the man who mentored her on the job, Christie’s former education commissioner Chris Cerf, and his honeymoon in the new job may prove anything but.

Cerf attended his first public meeting last week before the district’s school board, and while it was a relatively subdued crowd by Newark school standards, Cerf was nonetheless greeted with critical questions on everything from his intentions for the district’s local schools (he vaguely promised they would continue to serve a majority of students) to whether his corporate past would influence his decisions (a predictable “No”).

But Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who has emerged as the leading anti-reform voice, showed up and called the reforms “failed,” and the head of the Newark Teachers Union, whose contract has now expired, went a step further and called for a dismantling of One Newark altogether.

Maybe most telling, four years after Newark’s supposed transformation under Christie, the core issue now is when the district will leave state operation altogether and be returned to local control.

School funding, redux

Christie’s longest-lasting impact on New Jersey public schools is probably state funding — a complicated story, to say the least.

It started with what was the harshest year for schools in recent memory, when Christie in his first year in office cut more than $1 billion in state aid to public schools in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown.

Half of that money was restored for the state’s neediest districts, thanks to the state Supreme Court and the legacy of Abbott v. Burke. But four years later and slight aid increases since then, a majority of districts have still not fully recovered to their previous aid levels, and the funding gap between what districts receive and what the law entitles only widens.

How long that will remain tenable is an open question, with administration officials and others saying state funding of schools could be a central issue in the next year on a number of fronts.

Most immediate, the administration is due to issue its required report on the state of funding this fall — the Education Adequacy Report – where any of its own plans are likely to be unveiled.

At the same time, a report on special education funding and oversight is also overdue. One that will have its own recommendations on how to pay for what is becoming a dominant slice of local district budgets.

Preschool may come into its own as a dominant concern as well, since leading Democrats have said that expanding access is a core aim in the next few years. But even short of that, for Democrats looking to succeed Christie in 2017 — chief among them state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — few are likely to make excuses for a funding law that is so grossly underfunded.

PARCC realized

And then there’s PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).

While Christie has taken pains to move away from the Common Core as part of his shift to the right as a presidential candidate, he has left intact the new online tests used to evaluate student performance under the standards.

And the results of those tests are about to be realized.

Taken last spring amid considerable controversy by elementary, middle, and high-school students, test results will be coming back this fall in a few waves.

First will be the State Board of Education’s deliberations over where to finalize the so-called “cut scores” or passing grades on the new tests, a complicated process that started this summer with the convening of educators nationwide in Denver to begin setting the bar for states to adopt.

Once finalized, those scores will be coming back to the districts, which will likely see starkly different passing rates than they are used to.

At the very least, the Christie administration has adjusted to that possibility, and already scaled back any moves to ramp up the consequences of the tests for teachers and schools for at least a year.