The New Jersey Board of Education meets this morning in private session to discuss the future of Newark schools—and the role former state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf will play. The board has been a rubber stamp for Gov. Chris Christie, who appointed most members, but even rubber-stamps must have moral and ethical standards. Cerf came to the commissioner’s position earning money privately from Newark’s suffering as a consultant with Global Education Advisers . He left the position to earn money privately as a publisher with Amplify from Newark’s suffering. And, just a few days ago, the federal government accused Cerf of evading state and federal law and regulations in a way that enhanced the suffering of Newark’s children.
If a majority of the board members votes for Cerf to replace the disgraced Cami Anderson as Newark superintendent, these men and women will show themselves not just to be obsequious and cowardly but also to be without any recognizable sense of right and wrong.
The long story of Cerf’s involvement in education has been carefully documented by the blogger Jersey Jazzman. Read his stuff about Cerf.
I want to write about what just happened. As reported on my Facebook page, the federal education department found that the state education department—when under Cerf’s leadership—allowed Anderson, the Newark superintendent he hired, to ignore the procedures the state itself established to identify and assist the most struggling schools in Newark.
The language of the letter from Heather Rieman, an acting assistant US education secretary, is as opaque as English can be while still remaining English. So I will provide a translation, with background, and print the key sentences from the Rieman letter below. What happened was this:
New Jersey, like virtually every state, had to apply for a waiver—the feds call it “flexibility– to be excused from meeting all the requirements of the federal education law known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more popularly called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB). If a state promised to take certain actions to help schools, the federal government would drop the harsh sanctions the law demanded—sanctions that might have included closing nearly half the schools in the state. New Jersey gave the federal government a plan and the plan was approved. The state and its children would not be punished.
Part of that plan, of course, dealt with Newark. It laid out how the worst-performing schools would be identified and how they would be helped by the state to improve. Simply put, a state agency known as the Hudson/Essex Regional Achievement Center, or RAC, would identify low-performing schools, prescribe solutions, and improve the performance of the schools. With public money.
But Cerf didn’t want to do that—and why is a question the state school board must answer before it imposes him on the children of Newark. As David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center (ELC) that sought the federal investigation, has pointed out, Cerf “improperly gave into a demand from Newark’s State-appointed Superintendent, Cami Anderson, to allow her to retain full control over 28 low-performing schools.”
In other words, the children attending those schools were denied the help and services federal and state law required they receive. Their schools were not subjected to a Quality School Reviews (QSR) to determine what the children needed; their schools did not receive a School Improvement Plan (SIP) to begin improving performance. Although the state had set up an infrastructure for the sole purpose of helping low-performing schools, that infrastructure was not available to Newark’s children.
Anderson and Cerf stole those things from the children of the city. The children did not get what was, by law, rightfully theirs. Or, as the statute Christie, when he was a federal prosecutor frequently used to indict his political rivals, Anderson and Cerf deprived the people and children of the state their “intangible right of honest services.”
They decided on their own—in contravention of state and federal law, regulation, and policy– to give Anderson a free hand to do whatever she wanted to do to “help” the failing Newark schools. That meant hiring millions of dollars worth of consultants, including former associates of Anderson who had gone into the private sector. It meant closing schools and handing them over to privately operated charters—including one Cerf once served as a trustee. Firing good teachers. Hiring incompetent, inexperienced administrators.
Teachers are held accountable for the failure of their students. Students are held accountable in the endless rounds of standardized testing. Parents–especially in cities–are blamed for the failures of the children. When will political creatures like Cerf and Anderson be held accountable for their failures?
Cerf and Anderson ran the Newark schools according to dictates of their own ambitions and ideology and they ran those schools into the ground. No one disputes that the signature reform imposed by Anderson—so-called “renew schools”–performed worse than they had in prior years. The Alliance for Newark Schools has provided irrefutable proof of Anderson’s failure.
The Newark Teachers Union (NTU) cites Cerf’s testimony in a labor arbitration hearing to provide one possible answer to why Cerf let Anderson ignore the requirements of the ESEA waiver. Cerf left the commissioner’s job in March, 2014, to take a job with the publishing and testing company known as Amplify. At the time, Newark had a $2.3 million contract with Amplify. In the testimony cited by the union, Cerf can’t remember how much money the company he was about to join was receiving from a school district that he, as Anderson’s boss, directly supervised.
No competent investigatory agency has looked into Cerf’s private dealings before, while, and after he was commissioner. Christie controls the state attorney general’s office. The US Attorney’s office is now run by Paul Fishman, a Casper Milquetoast of a prosecutor when it comes to Christie. The US Department of Education still has six pending complaints sitting before it brought by Newark residents and officials. There is never any rush when the children of Newark are the ones who need help.
In her letter disclosing to the ELC her findings, Rieman wrote “the Essex/Hudson RAC did not fulfill the responsibilities of a RAC outlined in New Jersey’s ESEA flexibility request with respect to NPS’s Priority and Focus schools.”
Forget the alphabet soup. Forget the language designed to obfuscate. This is what’s true: Cerf and Anderson did not do what they were supposed to do for the children of Newark and now Christie wants Cerf back to finish the job in Newark.
What job? The privatization of the Newark schools so that friends and associates of Christie, Cerf, and Anderson can continue to profit from charterization of the Newark public schools—a district with a billion dollars a year just waiting to be had by the sharpest entrepreneurs.
To make Newark a New Orleans on the Passaic.