State BOE Head in Spotlight as Christie Charter-School Code Gets Voted Down

BOE President Biedron — targeted for replacement by Christie — says there was nothing political in thwarting governor’s charter-school regs

Mark Biedron, president of the state Board of Education
In a normally inconspicuous role on a normally inconspicuous panel, state Board of Education President Mark Biedron is finding himself pretty high profile these days.

First came Gov. Chris Christie’s move in December to replace Biedron as head of the regulatory board, which oversees state code for student testing, teacher evaluation, and other areas. The action caught most by surprise, especially since Christie had appointed Biedron six years ago.

Then, as Christie’s nomination slogged through the confirmation process, came the board’s vote last week — under Biedron’s leadership — to sideline a key piece of the governor’s proposal to loosen the rules on charter schools.

The state board rarely rejects a high-profile proposal from any administration; doing so thrust Biedron into the spotlight, albeit reluctantly.

Christie’s proposal would have allowed a pilot group of high-performing charters to hire uncertified teachers and principals. It was part of a package of relaxed requirements the governor has touted for the better part of a year.

A co-founder of a private school in Somerset County, Biedron last week said the board remained unconvinced of the need for or the benefit of such deregulation.

“I didn’t find anyone other than the charters who thought this was a good idea,” Biedron said in an interview after the board’s vote.

And what about the politics, given he has one foot out the door? Biedron said it was not a factor, although he wouldn’t comment on whether he had spoken with the governor’s office since.

“This had nothing to do with my own situation,” he countered.

The vote was 6-2, Biedron pointed out, with a spirited discussion. “I was so proud of my board in that everyone put forward their opinions,” he said.

Nonetheless, the state Board of Education was back at the center of attention for at least a day, as talk swirled around what may happen next with the 13-member unpaid panel.

Christie has appointed six new members to the board, as well as reappointed seven others. The only two not reappointed are its two top officers: Biedron and vice chairman Joseph Fisicaro.

In public, Biedron has stayed quiet about the changes, saying there is still plenty of work to be done while he remains on the board. The charter issue is hardly the only contentious topic before the panel, as dozens of families also descended on the board last Wednesday to protest a separate set of new private-school regulations for disabled students.

And Biedron may be around for a while longer. None of Christie’s appointments or reappointments have come up before the Senate judiciary panel, a slower response than the usual rubber-stamp that the Senate gives such gubernatorial appointments. The panel meets today, with only two judge’s confirmations on the agenda.

When asked about the delay, Senate President Steve Sweeney said on Thursday that he wasn’t sure when they would be posted, opting not to comment further. “They are still under review,” he said.

Meanwhile, the charter-school debate is hardly going away. The board’s vote on Wednesday — with a final formal one coming in two months —was likely the end of the certification pilot, at least for now. But there will be other changes coming that will almost certainly loosen the rules for charters in securing facilities and other operations.

The state’s charter school association had pressed for the package as a whole. After the vote on Wednesday, the association released the following statement:

“The omission of the proposed pilot certification program is a missed opportunity from the State Board of Education to support students in high-performing public charter schools. This move eliminates the opportunity for public charter school students to learn from highly skilled professionals with unique skillsets. We do, however, look forward to the currently adopted regulations to support increased autonomy and transparency of public charter schools.”

Biedron said he was pleased some of the changes coming for charter schools that he does think will benefit their students. He just didn’t think the certification exemption was among them.

“I’m not a big regulation guy,” he said. “We just have to be careful that if charters get too unregulated that we end up like some other states where things have gotten messed up.”