When Mark Biedron was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to the state Board of Education in 2011, he admitted to being naïve about the workings of New Jersey public education. But the businessman and founder of a private school in Somerset County got a crash course in how public schools operate in his home state.
Six years later, Biedron had become one of the board’s highest-profile members, serving as president and presiding over contentious votes on charter schools and PARCC testing. And then suddenly and inexplicably, the man who had originally appointed Biedron replaced him with someone else.
Biedron’s departure became official last week, when his replacement — Mary Elizabeth Gazi, an attorney with Christie’s old law firm — was confirmed by the state Senate. Yesterday, he spoke with NJ Spotlight about the ups and downs of the job, his disappointment in leaving now, and what’s next.
NJ Spotlight: Let’s start on a happy note with an appraisal of your time on the board. Talk about what you are proudest of.
Biedron: I was blessed with a diverse board, and I think that diversity gave us incredible objectivity and allowed us to have what I thought were deep discussions on the various issues brought before us.
And one thing about the board that made it a great board is we had our discussions, we talked about what we felt on a particular subject, we were honest and open about it, and then we voted. And what made us a great board and not just a good board is we all got behind the vote, even if we sometimes didn’t totally agree with it.
Q: What policy achievements meant the most?
A: One of the things I’m incredibly proud of is writing a new strategic plan. That was done in cooperation with 40 or so stakeholder groups, having conversations about what they felt we should be looking at in the next five years and what they felt it meant to be smart and educated in today’s world. Those conversations are reflected in the new strategic plan of ours, which is 99 percent done.
Q: What are the highlights of that?
A: Our vision is where we really took some time. It wasn’t just to prepare students to be college and career ready, but really to allow students to have a well-rounded education, to be civic-ready, which is really, really important, and to talk about the whole student and not just test scores. We recognize we have to test, but that is just a slice of what we want students to walk out the door with at 12th grade.
What is so important is that we’ve given you the skills to be life-ready. Part of them are academic and the knowledge and the content. But a lot of that you can get by pressing a button, and what we really feel is important are the soft skills: the communication, the listening, the problem solving, the critical thinking, the collaboration. Today, if you can’t work in a team, you are not going to get the job.
Q: There’s always the claim that the board is just a rubber-stamp, that it doesn’t do much. You must have run into folks who said, “what does the state board do anyway?”
A: They think that just because we typically all approve of the regulations once they get to the proposal stage. What they don’t understand is the discussions start months before that, months and months before that. We’re out there talking to the stakeholder groups, and by the time it gets to proposal, we have had all those hard conversations and have ironed all this stuff out.
Anyone who tells me we are a rubber-stamp board, they are in for a long conversation with me. That is just not true.
Q: Were you surprised by all the politics and the back and forth and the work involved with the board, which is all volunteer?
A: Believe me, I was naïve. I had spent 13 years in education, all in independent schools, and when I stepped on the board, I didn’t know that much about public education. I was the first to tell anyone that. That’s why I listened and interacted with people for the first three years.
But I wouldn’t call all that the politics of it. You were talking about people protesting and voicing their views. But the more I got into it, I realized that people got so upset because they didn’t always understand some of what we were doing. I know we’re not perfect and some of the subjects we have talked about are not resolved.
There is a huge charter school debate going on, and no one has come up with an answer on how they can all coexist and learn from each other. We are still having a conversation about PARCC.
But I have actually enjoyed it. I have been in people’s living rooms, and before 300 teachers. Nothing wrong with people being upset, and it is our job to listen.
Q: Do you want to speak about what just happened with your ouster and replacement?
A: I put my heart and soul in this job for six years, and even with groups where we don’t always agree, we still managed to have conversations and respected each other and learned to coexist.
I still to this day do not know why me and my vice president (Joseph Fisicaro) were not reappointed. The only thing we had ever done that was against the administration was the charter school package (and rejecting a move to remove teacher certification requirements), and even with that piece, I was still very interested in having that conversation.
Q: Did things suddenly turn cold with the administration?
A: When I found out the news, and not even with a phone call, we still hadn’t even gotten to that final vote. Am I disappointed? Absolutely. I wanted to continue the work, and I think everybody on the board wants to continue the work. I tried to ask, but I was never given an answer.
Q: Does that turn you off to the process?
A: No, I want to stay in the educational space. I still think education is the answer to just about everything, and critically important right now.
Would I love to still be the board’s president? Absolutely, but it is what it is.
Q: What is the state of public education in New Jersey right now?
A: I am getting tired of hearing that our traditional schools are broken and not working. I don’t agree with that. And if you go out in the field, yes, you will find some problems, no doubt, but I also see the incredible work our educators are doing, the incredible work the students are doing. We have great schools in New Jersey. Good things are happening, and I think the state of New Jersey schools is great.
Q: What’s next for you? Will you stay in public education in New Jersey, maybe even with the next administration or some other role?
A: I want to stay involved in education, but what that looks like, I have no idea. It’s too early to tell.