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8-9-12 Education in the News

NJ Spotlight - Cerf to Lose Two Top Aides -- Deputy Commissioner and Chief of Staff…Departure comes when education department is starting to enjoy some stability


By John Mooney, August 9, 2012 in Education

Just as education commissioner Chris Cerf is settling into his title, if not the job itself, two of his top lieutenants are leaving his side at the department.

Last week, Andrew Smarick announced he would be leaving the post of deputy commissioner to return to Washington, D.C., and the world of advocacy and think tanks that he left to come to New Jersey two years ago.

Yesterday, David Hespe said he will be depart as Cerf’s chief of staff to become president of Burlington County College. Hespe, himself a former state commissioner from a decade ago, said it was a position he could not pass up.

“This is a dream job for me, and every now and then dream jobs come true,” Hespe said of the community college presidency.

The turnover at the top of the high-profile department comes at a time when it appeared Cerf could enjoy some stability on the job, with almost all of his top positions filled and his own finally confirmed by the state Senate after a long parliamentary drama.

Smarick and Hespe have also been key players, the former providing some of the philosophical underpinning of the administration’s reform agenda; the latter, the logistical hub of day-to-day management.

“When you go through all the major initiatives that this administration is going through, these are two big positions to lose,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

“David [Hespe] was really the glue who held everything together, and it will be interesting to see who the commissioner brings in to replace him,” he said.

With 15 months left in Gov. Chris Christie’s term, it is not entirely certain if Cerf will bring anyone new in. Efforts to reach the commissioner yesterday were unsuccessful, and his office released a statement that he would be reviewing the department’s organization. He only last year completed the last reorganization.

“The commissioner is taking a look at the roles and responsibilities of his senior staff members in order to determine what the needs of the organization are going to be moving forward,” said Barbara Morgan, Cerf’s press secretary.

Hespe said there were plenty of talented people already in the department. “Turnover is always part of the job as commissioner, but Chris has brought in some tremendous talent who can easily move up,” he said.

Although in the chief of staff position for only a year, Hespe had been considered one of the anchors in the department due to his past stint as commissioner, as well as an aide and counsel in the Statehouse.

Cerf himself is a transplant from the New York City public school system, where he was a deputy chancellor, and Hespe was seen as someone who knew the rhythms and rituals of New Jersey public education and its stakeholders.

Hespe was given a couple of high-profile assignments as well, chairing two task forces to help develop key policy on high school graduation standards and ease bureaucratic red tape binding schools.

The first task force released its report earlier this year. The second report has been done for months but has yet to be released.

“I’m telling you, it’s coming out soon,” Hespe said yesterday. “And it will be a major achievement in reviewing the relationship between the state and the local districts.”

Smarick came to the department from outside New Jersey, actually brought in by Cerf’s predecessor, Bret Schundler, and was rumored at one point to take Schundler's spot after he was fired by Christie in 2010.

Instead, he settled into a deputy role and was said to play a key part in some of the state’s broader initiatives, including the state’s ultimately successful federal Race to the Top grant and its application for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

But he also brought some controversy. He was outspoken in his calls for aggressive reforms for failing schools, including outright closures. That has been one of the most contested pieces of Christie’s education agenda, and Smarick was often a lightning rod for criticism.

Bozza said he grew to work well with Smarick.

“The more I worked with him, as well as the others brought in from the outside, I found they realized more and more the difficulties of some of these challenges and the real impact of them,” Bozza said.

“Andy is a very positive and upbeat guy, and I found him always open and willing to listen,” he added.

Smarick, whose departure was announced at the state Board of Education meeting last week, will be moving back to the Washington, D.C., area to work as a consultant for Bellwether Education Partners.

Bellwether is a nonprofit group that provides consulting and leadership help in the area of urban education. It is led by, among others, Andrew Rotherham, a well-known education commentator and former White House aide under President Clinton.

NJ Spotlight - Opinion: Cutting the Clutter About Online Charter Schools…Arguments about virtual charters seem to be more about territory than education

By Laura Waters, August 9, 2012 in Opinion


There’s a ruckus at the New Jersey Department of Education.

New Jersey's charter school legislation is 17 years old, dating back to the dawn of the Internet era. It's showing its age. Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf believes he can use DOE-issued regulations to bring the law up to date. But others think he’s arrogantly bypassing the legislative process.

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More offensive to certain lobbying groups, primarily the NJEA and Education Law Center (ELC), the most recent draft of these proposed regulations would remove the requirement that charters serve “contiguous school districts” and implicitly allow the establishment of online charter schools.

In a July 24 letter to Cerf, the lobbyists warn that “the Legislature has not authorized blended online programs that feature a prominent online component nor has the Legislature prescribed a percentage of online instruction that is acceptable in a blended or hybrid program." The complaint also alleges that two approved charter schools in Newark “appear to be online virtual charter schools with the veneer of a traditional bricks and mortar charter schools to mask their true nature.”

Let's cut through all this noise -- including exchanges about the reputation of one of the charter providers (K12) -- and confront the specter of online learning straight on: both fulltime and hybrid (blended).

Nationally, 40 states have passed online learning policies and 30 states and D.C. have created virtual schools. A relatively new group, iNACOL, (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) just released its five Principles for Model Legislation in States.

As goes the country, so goes New Jersey. Explains Dr. Roy Montesano of Ramsey Public Schools, the state's 2012 Superintendent of the Year, “A hybrid model is where education is headed, and we need to stay on top of that as educators. In order to be successful, we need to look beyond our walls for ways to offer what can’t be accomplished in house.”

More and more New Jersey students are going out of house and online. Forty-three public high schools -- 11 percent -- participate in the [[link:http://thevhscollaborative.org/|Virtual High School Global Consortium]. Atlantic City Public Schools’ District Technology Plan intends for its students to “routinely utilize technology as a tool to enhance learning” and “communicate and interact with students and resources beyond the district boundaries.”

At Glen Ridge High School, students can enroll in online courses from Rowan University and receive both high school and college credit, a common model in which state schools link with local and community colleges to efficiently expand offerings. Upper Saddle River School District is experimenting with Florida Virtual School for kids in Algebra I. At the elementary level, most New Jersey public schools subscribe to web-based curricula aligned with our Core Curriculum Content Standards, like Study Island or BrainPOP or PLATO.

Apparently it’s not the benefits or deficits of online learning that’s got New Jersey lobbyists atwitter. This dispute smells more than a little bit like a turf war. After all, if New Jersey (through the DOE or the Legislature) explicitly approves online charter schools, we may eventually need fewer teachers, or at least fewer unionized teachers. Cue NJEA. If the DOE approves online charters that are not circumscribed by “contiguous districts” -- that is, the school can serve students regardless of zip code -- then local power is diminished and the Abbott rulings, which send funding to schools based on zip code, are less relevant. Cue ELC.

Perhaps it’s not so petty. After all, blended learning -- combining online studies with face-to-face instruction -- is here to stay. ELC and NJEA officials know that.

It’s really a matter of degree. What’s the best proportion of online learning to traditional instruction? Which students derive the most from one or the other? What subjects lend themselves to Internet technology and which are best taught through traditional models? How do we nurture students’ social and emotional development in a more virtual environment? Is this sort of educational analysis best performed by the by the state Legislature, DOE, NJEA, local school districts, or representatives from all stakeholders?

These questions bear study. But let’s make this about improving options for New Jersey's schoolchildren, not advancing political agendas.

Philadelphia Inquirer - New state aid to "growth" schools a boon to S. Jersey

By Matt Katz  Inquirer Trenton Bureau  Posted: Thu, Aug. 9, 2012, 3:01 AM

Jen Cavallaro's children had chocolate-chip pancakes with whipped cream for breakfast Wednesday.

The occasion? On Day 781 of Cavallaro's effort to secure more state money for her rapidly growing Swedesboro-Woolwich School District, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) had given her a call.

There was news on a bill Sweeney had sponsored - and Cavallaro had lobbied for - to send $4.1 million to so-called "growth" districts statewide. Last year, Cavallaro confronted Gov. Christie about the measure at a town-hall meeting, and he indicated that he would approve it. But in January, when it came to his desk, he didn't sign it.

The bill was introduced again, and passed both chambers of the Legislature. And on Tuesday, Sweeney told Cavallaro early Wednesday, it was finally signed into law.

"It was an amazing moment," Cavallaro said of hearing the news. She also received a congratulatory call from the governor's office.

In February, Cavallaro's crusade looked bleak. Asked at a news conference why he did not sign the original bill, Christie said: "I don't do special legislation to give money to certain school districts."

Sweeney had known he wouldn't sign it, the governor said. Sweeney had called that "bull."

A spokesman for Christie, Kevin Roberts, said Wednesday that legislators passed a large number of bills in January, at the end of their session.

Of those, "many were vetoed because he would not sign bills that could not be properly and thoroughly vetted because of the compressed time frame," Roberts said.

This time, Christie had the opportunity to properly review the legislation, he said.

Cavallaro's district, which added 59 students to its 1,800-student roll this summer alone, will receive an additional $963,615 under the new law.

Most of the districts to benefit immediately are in South Jersey: Burlington County's Chesterfield, Salem County's Elmer, and Gloucester County's East Greenwich, Kingsway Regional, South Harrison, and Swedesboro-Woolwich.

The districts are in once-rural areas that have been gobbled up by development in recent years. The K-6 Swedesboro-Woolwich district had 1,059 students in 2004; 3,200 are projected by 2016-17.

"These districts battling with sharp enrollment hikes need the most help," Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D., Gloucester-Salem), a teacher and bill sponsor, said in a statement.

Districts' tax revenues are limited by Christie's 2 percent cap on annual increases to their levy. To save money, districts have shared services, eliminated programs, and laid off staff.

That's Cavallaro's next challenge: to lobby for a new state funding formula that can accommodate districts grappling with high growth.

Cavallaro called the new law a "small victory" for the community. At one rally for the bill, 300 people showed up.

On Tuesday, Christie signed several other education bills. One will put a question on ballots in November asking voters to approve $750 million in bonds for capital improvements at colleges and universities. Another allows state and county colleges to enter into partnerships with companies to build campus facilities.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 and mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.



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