New Jersey’s education commissioners are all a bit different, sometimes more than a bit. At least that holds for the 11 this reporter has covered so far.
David Hespe had political smarts: a government lawyer with no classroom experience, he served in the position twice and knew how to navigate Trenton. William Librera was one of several with an educator’s resume, but he lacked some of the political finesse the post requires.
Some served in less controversial times for education and didn’t leave their imprint on the position. Vito Gagliardi comes to mind, although he was in office September 11, 2001, a daunting moment for any public official.
There are those who held the office during anything but calm weather. Bret Schundler, Chris Cerf and Kimberley Harrington served under Gov. Chris Christie and had to deal with the bombast and bluster he brought to New Jersey’s school system. It’s telling that Schundler is the only one on this list who was fired, at least publicly.
And in the past three decades only four of 11 commissioners were women: Harrington, Mary Lee Fitzgerald, Lucille Davy, and Rochelle Hendricks.
The current commissioner
Now, after two years on the job, Lamont Repollet is making his mark.
The former educator from Union and Monmouth counties has been a loyal soldier for Gov. Phil Murphy. Regardless of what each commissioner says about how much or how little he or she is controlled by the governor, most of them actually are.
What is different about Repollet, besides his being the first African-American man to hold the position?
To start, he’s a product of his times, taking office under a Democratic governor after the Christie years, when public schools felt as if they were under siege financially and in spirit.
He definitely came in as one of New Jersey’s own and has continued to build on that beginning, with considerable outreach into the communities. He’s willing to crisscross the state, and like most of his predecessors, he can talk. And talk.
Walking the walk
Concrete proposals have been a little rarer, but there is still plenty of time. He lists his proudest accomplishment as expanding state-funded preschool, no small task but one whose foundation was already in place. And while it’s gone smoother this year, it also got off to a rocky start under this commissioner.
He certainly is paying more attention to holistic issues than most of his predecessors, especially about “social and emotional” learning and the importance of achieving equity to schools, including their staffing.
Still, some deep-seated issues about equity remain to be resolved or even much discussed, including school segregation and school construction. But both are likely to end up in court and out of his hands.
And there is always testing, the bane of virtually every commissioner. Even Hespe, for all his political skills, had to explain how more than half of fourth graders couldn’t pass a state test.
Repollet has been circumspect as to his specific plans, boldly declaring the “next generation of testing” without saying much more. He promises more details by the end of the year.
This reporter sat down with Repollet for a few minutes for NJTV News to talk about the start of the new school year and these and other issues.
“The pre-K expansion, absolutely. We have 5,500 new students, and not just in urban communities but all ZIP codes. It’s a great way to boost the economy locally, but more importantly, it gives our kids, early learners, an opportunity to really start early on getting a high-quality education.”
“We will be looking at all options. I’m not going to say right now exactly what it will be because we are still ascertaining information …”
“What is the best assessment for New Jersey? We want to make sure that assessment is fair, that we can get it back in a timely fashion, and that those taking it are not frustrated at the high-stakes testing. We want to eliminate some of the anxiety of the testing.”
(Asked about a timeline for assessment:) “In the beginning, I talked about moving in a methodical pace. It is important in our districts, in our communities; they don’t need us to rush this.”
Is there a vaping strategy?
“We put out some guidelines last year, and we continue to work on this. Now with the current situation, where some of our children are getting hurt, we have been working with the Department of Health to get out more current information.”
“We do have language in our standards, but we are reviewing our health standards to make sure we incorporate e-cigarettes. We have tobacco, narcotics, alcohol, but I don’t think we actually have the word ‘e-cigarettes.’ And then we will convene some task force to tell us what we can do to support districts.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct an error in the initial post. There were four, not three, women commissioners in the last 30 years. Former commissioner Kimberley Harrington was omitted in the initial list.