Dear NJ State Board of Education:
The State Board of Education should unflinchingly reject Governor Chris Christie’s nominee for the next Superintendent of Newark’s public schools. Former NJ Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf has a history of underfunding, dismantling, and making money off of the very institution he now wants to now lead.
Like a parody of a shifty, racist politician from the 1950s, Chris Christie went from blatantly saying that he would not let Newark govern itself, to promoting an ugly, dishonest process that will ensure that -on education – Newark will never govern itself. If the State Board of Education is even mildly sincere about the importance of local control, then it must today work directly with the locally elected school board to select Newark’s next school leader.
In response to growing media coverage of wide spread protests and anger, Governor Chris Christie removed Cami Anderson as Superintendent of Newark’s public schools and started a commission to pretend that he was interested in local control. His commission is rigged to make Newark into a New Orleans style charter district. If the governor cared about starting a process to lead to local control, he would have suggested educators on his commission instead of making the committee’s deciding majority business people and charter school proponents.
If the governor cared at all about our children, he would have nominated an educator to be the next superintendent of Newark’s public schools. Instead of an educator, Chris Christie nominated a questionable business man, better known for exploiting Newark’s children than educating them. Chris Cerf is the poster boy for the legal corruption inherent in school reform, and the type of exploitive practices necessary to make it happen
Chris Cerf’s firm, Global Associates, was paid $500,000 to give Cami Anderson her blueprint for running Newark’s schools. Chris Cerf left his post as New Jersey Education Commissioner to to join Amplify, a company that had – under Anderson – a $2 million contract with Newark’s public schools.
Before he hired Cami Anderson, Newark’s public school district scored so high on our 2011 NJ state evaluations (QSAC), the law said that Newark should be returned to local control. For this reason, in 2011 Newark should have been returned to local control. Cerf went to court to ensure that would not happen. He also had his new appointee, Cami Anderson redo the scores a year and a half early; the scores that Newark earned to gain local control dropped magically by nearly half.
Cerf-related companies profited because of the scores his agent, Cami Anderson, slashed – scores which were used as a legal justification for continued state control. Reporters really should look up the details of former Newark Mayor Sharpe James’ corruption conviction and compare. The then federal prosecutor Chris Christie put Sharpe James in jail for less.
Just last week the federal government cited Chris Cerf for his role in violating federal rules requiring that Newark give additional resources to schools designated as failing. In other words, while he was the NJ Commissioner of Education, the reformer pimp starved struggling schools of needed resources. Chris Cerf was also recently named to the Board of Directors of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But this is not considered a legal conflict of interest because he stepped down last week. He had a more lucrative offer.
In 2013 I spoke to Cami Anderson about the NJ State Evaluation scores for Newark. She at first told me that former Newark Superintendents Marion Bolden and Dr. Clifford Janey had inflated the scores. When pressed, she backed away from that and said that the state reporting system (QSAC) was the problem. Shavar Jeffries, former candidate for Newark Mayor, was president of the school board during that time and he still takes pride in having led the Newark Board of Education to scores high enough to legally gain local control.
He thought if he got the elected but powerless Newark Board of Education to meticulously play by the rules set up by the State, Newark would get local control. I respect what Shavar Jeffries tried to do, but Chris Cerf showed that rules and laws are only impediments to his agenda.
The governor has gone from being an old school racist blatantly saying that he was the decider and that the Black and brown people of Newark would have no say, to being a contemporary racist who creates structures that thinly and disrespectfully mask that the Black and brown people of Newark have no say. The majority on his commission will create the benchmarks and hoops through which Newark must jump before we can have our freedom. The governor empowered the majority of business and charter school people to determine if we jumped high enough.
We have seen this lie before. This was the purpose of existing law under QSAC. There is already a state evaluation process that Newark passed in 2011. But local control was blocked by the then NJ Commissioner of education, Chris Cerf, the person who is in charge of this new round of hoop jumping. I wonder if Chris Cerf knows that he is insulting our intelligence.
Star Ledger columnist and no friend of local control for Newark, Tom Moran recently wrote a detailed editorial bluntly calling Chris Christie a liar. The New York Times agreed. In Newark, no one believes that our governor will be more truthful with us. Chris Cerf often publicly expresses his thoughts on local control. To him, local control isn’t even needed, because with charter schools, we vote with their feet. To him, we don’t even want to use ballots and have elections.
Chris Cerf is not just insulting our intelligence; he is insulting our humanity.
Chris Christie’s suggestion that Chris Cerf is an educator who will lead Newark’s schools to local control is absurd, even for someone the Star Ledger and New York Times refer to as a bold and seasoned liar.
Maybe this surreal moment is not a throwback to the 1950s. Maybe it is better understood as a 1970s blaxploitation film, with Chris Cerf serving as the obligatory white villain. The exaggerated imagery is the only way for me to process the audacity, ruthlessness, and contempt that both Chris Christie and Chris Cerf have shown for the people of Newark.
The attack on even Newark’s most successful public schools is what makes this game especially ruthless. I have to always remind people that five of Newark’s high schools were declared by U.S. News and World Report as among the best in the United States: Science Park, History, Technology, University, and Arts. Science Park’s award-winning, dynamic principal resigned in protest at the destructive policies of Chris Cerf’s disciple. Many quality teachers and administrators throughout the district have left for that reason.
Teachers at East Side and administrators at Central understood that their successful efforts to improve their schools were being actively sabotaged. The teachers at East Side protested strongly in spite of being threatened with forced placement into the wasteful $20 million pool of teachers without classrooms. The principal of Central risked the loss of her job to report that her school was being flooded with special needs students without any of the legally mandated supports.
Central High School made such impressive changes under Ras Baraka following a “community school” model that then State Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf accused them of cheating; he later had to apologize. Instead of using Central High’s improvements as a model, this state-based administration punished the students, teachers, and administrators and set them up to fail.
Cami Anderson gutted our system with a $70 million budget deficit and is praised by the governor for doing a great job. This is because she did the job for which she was sent; a job that the questionable businessman has come to finish.
The local people of Newark are fighting to immediately empower our locally elected school board and stop the deliberate destruction of our schools. That is why 2000 students shut down a highway and teachers shut down a major public street. That is why 70 clergymen prayed in unison for the previous superintendent to leave.
Chris Cerf really does seem like the white villain in a blaxploitation movie. Smoothly coming into he hood to disrupt the Black and brown people who are trying to create community. “We’ll use trickery to break their institutions and replace them with own.”
Newark needs a superintendent who does not want to pillage and destroy our public schools. It is not unreasonable to think that the shady businessman is coming to sell us off piece by piece, so that when local control is finally granted, there won’t be anything left to control.
If the Cerf gets this job, he will get a three year contract that Newark – at worst – will have to buy out after a year. A three year contract at Cami Anderson rates is $750,000. There may be additional bonus money the questionable businessman makes from rejoining Amplify, being hired by some national charter school reform group, or working for any other company where his many conflicts of interest will be ignored; Chris Cerf’s stint in Newark may actually be a million dollar boon.
Giving Chris Cerf a contract would be considered aiding and abetting in a non-colonial setting. The State Board of Education is going to have to decide if they want to become willing participants in Cerf’s questionable reward. The NJ State Board of Education will only offer Chris Cerf a contract if they believe – like Chris Cerf – that the students, parents, teachers, administrators, and people of Newark lack the basic humanity necessary to govern ourselves.
Ras Baraka is not a stupid man. Governor Christie may have thought that Ras Baraka would immediately reject such an obviously insulting offer. Had the mayor done that, Christie would have spun that he tried to reach out to the hostile mayor of that hostile dark city and was shot down. The governor would, as usual, play on racist assumptions of irrational hostility and failure in Newark and then appoint who he wanted to appoint anyway.
Ras Baraka figures that if he can’t decide who the next superintendent is, he can warmly greet the businessman and the community will attack him when he gets to Newark, like Cami Anderson. Chris Cerf may be easier to attack because he is such an obviously bad and compromised candidate. However, It would still be an ugly, bloody protracted fight.
The questionable businessman is clearly not Baraka’s choice to run our district, which I believe is Baraka’s point. The State does what it wants, which is why he knows that this is simply a different phase in the same struggle. He expects and needs the people of Newark to continue to protest and fight: after all, we are the Mayor too. Rejecting Chris Cerf does not interfere with Baraka’s plan because the governor is already talking about local control. The governor initiated this conversation because he felt a need.
If Chris Christie backs out then there was never a deal and Newark residents will play a key role in the next governor’s race while having more ammunition to take to the streets. However, since Christie can’t paint the Mayor as an uncooperative, Black boogeyman, the governor is forced further into a conversation about local control that he controls a little less.
Rejecting Chris Cerf does not hurt Ras Baraka; it exposes Chris Christie. If local control is the point, then rejecting Chris Christie’s obviously horrible nominee and working with the local board is logical and humane. It would prioritize educating Newark’s children above exploiting them. Newark’s children deserve to be led by someone who cares about them.
Newark has a local, democratically elected Board of Education. The NJ State Board of Education should talk to them and see what they suggest. I am certain that they would recommend a real educator over a questionable businessman pretending to be one.
Chris Cerf would be wise to understand that it never turns out well for the white villain in the blaxploitation movies. Ras Baraka says that he won’t be played. I imagine Chris Cerf running down Broad Street with a half open suitcase full of quickly spilling money, a Black man in a suit chasing him down while the audience yells, “Get him, Ras!” I must admit, I would be one of the many people cheering. In Newark, many of us are angry. But I would prefer a saner reality.
Jonathan Alston is an English teacher and debate coach at Newark’s Science Park High. He was educated in Newark at Mount Vernon Elementary School and Science High School. He graduated from Yale University and has been successfully teaching and coaching for twenty-two years. His debaters have won 7 NJ State Champions and many regional and national awards, including first, second and third place at the 2015 Berkeley National Debate Tournament and semi-finals at the 1998 and 2015 National High School Tournament of Champions.