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Garden State Coalition of Schools
Elisabeth Ginsburg, Executive Director
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GSCS Notes and News from yesterday's Judiciary Hearing re: Acting Commissioner Cerf's nomination to be Commissioner of Education
GSCS Notes: Statements by Acting Commissioner Cerf at his Senate Judiciary committee confirmation hearing today.

On charter schools and where they should play a role -

"Where there is reason for addressing an “unmet need”. Are there children who are not getting a quality education? Are kids being well-served educationally?"

A new policy just beginning to be implemented regarding ‘extensions’ granted to charters…as of two weeks ago, proposed charters will only be allowed one full year extension for planning” purposes, rather than open-ended extensions as had been in practice. (Caveat: need to double check on this to ensure whether new practice is ‘one year’ and not ‘two years’

There are "major differences" between virtual online charter schools and virtual charter schools for centered on‘hybrid and blended learning’ approaches.

On school funding - "...the policies on school funding and school laws should be collaborative between Executive and Legislative branches, not just Legislature alone..."

IN THE NEWS - The Record - Analysis: N.J. Senate judiciary panel OKs Cerf as education commissioner.....NJ Spotlight - For Cerf, an 18-Month Wait Ends in a Four-Hour Hearing…Senate committee strips "acting" from commissioner of education title, full senate approval virtually certain.....Politickernj - Senate Judiciary Committee releases Cerf nomination.....The Record - N.J. Senate judiciary panel OKs Cerf as education commissioner.....Politickernj - Cerf: Only Christie knows whether Ruiz' tenure bill will be signed

The Record - Analysis: N.J. Senate judiciary panel OKs Cerf as education commissioner

Thursday, July 26, 2012 Last updated: Thursday July 26, 2012, 11:37 PM



After an 18-month delay in getting a hearing, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf won a unanimous nod from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

Lawmakers usually approve department chief nominations. But the 13 votes for Cerf stood in contrast to the recent rejections of two of Governor Christie’s Supreme Court picks by this same panel. And Cerf’s approval came over the objections of one Democratic state senator’s determined effort to block him from getting a hearing at all.

Democrats did make a point of jabbing Cerf several times. The committee chairman said Cerf was giving them a “snow job” about why he rented an apartment near Trenton. And Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, said Cerf should sharpen his “political antennae,” alluding to an investigation into a request he made years ago for a donation to a charity.

It likely helped Cerf survive Thursday’s round that many of his plans for closing the achievement gap have become bipartisan strategies, stressed by President Obama and Governor Christie alike. All three repeat the mantra that having a quality teacher in the classroom is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning, support charter schools and emphasize using data to drive instruction. Beyond that, Cerf is a registered Democrat who used to joke about living in the liberal-leaning “People’s Republic of Montclair.”

Once the hearing was scheduled, Cerf’s approval was widely anticipated – even Christie’s first pick in 2010, Bret Schundler, a vocal conservative, got approved by the Democratic-controlled panel. Minutes before the hearing, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he thought Cerf was “doing a decent job,” and gave him credit for “helping to broker a key piece of legislation” for tenure reform.

For more than four hours, Cerf reeled off his ambitious undertakings at the department so far, such as making teacher evaluations more rigorous, focusing on the most troubled schools and trying to cut red tape.

Even before questions began, several Democratic lawmakers announced they would back Cerf. They used Thursday’s hearing to vent frustrations in public that their constituents’ towns got too little aid and that the Christie administration did not collaborate enough with them.

Cerf now faces a vote in the full state Senate, which very rarely opposes a nomination. Getting the “acting” out of his title gives him the full authority of his office; he said that if he had been commissioner during the recent tenure bill battle, for example, he could have testified on its behalf in the Senate.

Earlier this year, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected two high-profile Christie nominations for the Supreme Court, Phil Kwon of Closter and Bruce Harris of Chatham. That marked the first time since 1947 that the panel did not advance a governor’s choice for the state’s highest court. This bitter dispute is part of a larger battle for New Jersey’s future; Christie hopes to build a court that will see his way on major decisions on school funding, affordable housing and same-sex marriage.

To be sure, conflicts over education policy remain. Cerf stressed his exasperation that the tenure bill fails to end the seniority system. When a district downsizes, it’s the law that “you must preserve the job of a demonstrably inferior teacher and fire a teacher who is by all accounts the best in the district if the former is one day senior,’’ Cerf said. “It’s an outrage.”

Supporters of seniority rules counter that without them, expensive veterans will be fired to save money. Some also charge that Cerf’s favored methods of evaluating teachers are not as objective as he believes, and too reliant on flawed ratings using student test scores.

The hearing had some contentious moments. The first 20 minutes dwelled on where Cerf actually lives now; his hearing was delayed because state Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, exercised senatorial courtesy, which allows a senator to block an appointee from his home county. Rice has long charged that Cerf is too keen on using private companies to deliver services. Last year Cerf began renting an apartment in Montgomery in Somerset County, and the senator there allowed his hearing.

Cerf, 57, said he sought to avoid more than three hours of commuting daily and make it easier to handle 15-hour workdays in Trenton, noting that in June 2010 he had heart surgery and vowed to be more careful about his health. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, expressed skepticism about Cerf’s motive for establishing dual residency, saying Cerf did so mainly to skirt Senate rules.

“I found myself struggling to be able vote yes for you,” Scutari said. “For you to snow-job me and tell me you moved because you wanted to be closer to work, I cannot accept that.”

The legislators spent little time probing Cerf’s résumé, though Weinberg alluded briefly to his experience in law (he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and worked in the White House), and his work as president of Edison Schools Inc. Cerf also served as deputy chancellor of education in New York City.

He was asked about Global Education Advisors; critics have charged that the consulting firm was unfairly awarded a contract in Newark because of his role there. Cerf said he quit the two-man firm – “a dinky little entity” — as soon as he was tapped as commissioner and “never made a nickel” from it.

Weinberg advised him to sharpen his “political antennae.” She mentioned an episode from 2007, when the special commissioner of investigation for the New York schools found that while Cerf was a city official, he solicited donations from Edison Schools for a charity where he served on the board. According to an official report on the case, Cerf told investigators he withdrew his request and the donation was never made. Cerf said no disciplinary action was taken in the matter.

“I’ll vote for you for what you’ve done thus far” in New Jersey, Weinberg said. “I would urge you to sharpen up that antenna.”


NJ Spotlight - For Cerf, an 18-Month Wait Ends in a Four-Hour Hearing…Senate committee strips "acting" from commissioner of education title, full senate approval virtually certain

By John Mooney, July 27, 2012 in Education


The hearing in the Statehouse committee room was ostensibly for the confirmation of Chris Cerf as New Jersey’s education commissioner, a formality at this point for a man who’s been on the job as acting commissioner for more than 18 months.

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In the end, the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Cerf by a unanimous vote, releasing the nomination for an all but certain confirmation by the full Senate on Monday.

But the committee’s four-hour-long interview yesterday was also part of the continuing power play by the Legislature to show its relevance in what has become an increasingly aggressive education agenda under Gov. Chris Christie.

Time and again, Senators pressed Cerf to work more closely with the Legislature in crafting its policies, from education funding to charter schools to even one question about medicating students.

After the state Department of Education approved a series of online charter schools, for instance, the Legislature proposed its own moratorium.

When the administration this spring sought to rewrite the state’s funding formula as part of the state budget, Democrats reminded Cerf yesterday that they removed the language from the budget and told the governor to come back with separate legislation.

“Do you agree that it’s the role of the legislature to enact a school funding formula?” state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) asked Cerf at one point.

And it wasn’t just Democrats saying they felt left out. State Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren) spoke at length about his own preferences to revamp how state aide is distributed to local districts, ones also not in concert with Christie, either.

“I think we ceded this authority, and we should take it back,” Doherty said at one point. “I think we have the least say of the three branches of government, and that’s not consistent with the oath of office we took.”

A Work in Progress

Whether the Legislature will regain that power is a work in progress, maybe buttressed by the recent passage of a tenure reform bill that drew a rare consensus of both political parties, the administration, and key stakeholder groups.

Still, that same bill also waits for Christie to sign it, something he has said he will do, but is at close to a month and counting.

The very reason for the confirmation hearing, of course, was to give the Legislature a say in Cerf’s appointment to the highest education post in the state. And that, too, has proven its own drama since Cerf took office in January, 2011.

Such nominations are rarely contested, but this one hit a wall when state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) would not give his consent under the Legislature’s internal rules of senatorial courtesy due, to some differences with Cerf’s background and education philosophy. At the time, Cerf lived primarily in Montclair, and Rice held power as a Senator in Essex County.

With Rice only stiffening in his resolve, Cerf took up an apartment in Montgomery for what he said was its shorter commute to Trenton. It also happened to be represented by Republican Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset), who was content to sign off on his nomination.

For the past several months, there was a back and forth about where Cerf resided, with his family staying in Montclair and the acting commissioner returning there on weekends, but he ultimately registered to vote in Montgomery and even changed his license.

Where Do You Live?

While the source of much rumor and whispers in the Statehouse, the issue yesterday ended up taking up surprisingly little time in the hearing beyond the opening exchange with the committee’s chairman state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union).

It was his very first question: “Mr. Cerf, where do you live?”

And from there he grilled the commissioner on why he moved, why the commute was so bad when he had a driver, and even why Montgomery at all, still a half hour drive from Trenton.

“The argument that you moved to Montgomery to get closer to work, I’m not buying it,” Scutari said. “You moved there to be in Sen. Bateman’s district.”

But Cerf didn’t balk from his initial and sometimes elaborate reasoning, including the tax implications of having a state driver. “I think I’m in close touch with what my motives and intentions are,” he said.

And as quickly as the topic arose, Scutari then called it settled, and moved onto the rest of the hearing, with it barely to be mentioned again.

The Online Angle

There were some other highlights, too. Charter schools took up much of the discussion, with senators pressing Cerf on especially online schools to be more cautious and deliberate.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) was the sponsor of the moratorium bill in the Senate, which remains pending, and she said there were too many open questions about the efficacy of the schools and the state’s role.

And it was a message that Cerf appeared in this case to agree with, pointing to the department’s decision this month to postpone two of the charters that would be all-online programs. Two others with hybrid models were allowed to proceed.

“De facto, that is what we have done,” Cerf said of the moratorium. “When we gave a planning year to two of the virtual schools, we basically said that in the next year, we will engage in that process. Not just about the schools themselves, but our ability as a state to monitor and manage them.”

There were also other pointed lines of questioning. State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) wanted Cerf to do more in enforcing rules against nepotism and cronyism in his hometown of Elizabeth schools, a long-running issue for the senator.

Doherty, in addition to his questions about school funding, was the one who raised the issue about the medication of students for learning disabilities when he said there were other alternatives.

Ethical Issues

Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, broached some sensitive ethical issues for the commissioner as well, especially around Cerf’s relationship with various private education companies and consultancies in his years prior to becoming commissioner.

She endorsed Cerf’s confirmation, but asked him to be sensitive to even perceived conflicts. “I would urge you to sharpen that antennae, particularly in the environment we exist in,” he said.

That brought one of the few points of tension to the hearing, with Cerf asking Weinberg to clarify her remarks. “I want to be very careful that you are not misheard around the issue of ethics, which can be a very loaded word,” he said.

But in the end, Cerf drew unanimous support from the committee and looked assured to finally win the right to take the “acting” capacity off his title as the state’s commissioner of education.

‘I’m going to say yes,” Weinberg said of her vote, ”and I’m hoping we will hear from you often.”


Politickernj - Senate Judiciary Committee releases Cerf nomination

By Minhaj Hassan | July 26th, 2012 - 2:15pm


TRENTON – After more than four hours of testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously released the nomination of Christopher Cerf for state education commissioner.

He has been serving in that same role in an “acting” capacity for 19 months.

Questions had come up in the beginning regarding his residence. Cerf said he lives in an apartment in Montgomery for much of the week, saying he wanted to be closer to work than having to drive to Montclair each and every day.

He still owns a family home in that Essex County municipality.

Nick Scutari (D-22) of Linden, was convinced with Cerf's explanation of why he moved, saying he believes his move was politically-motivated (Montgomery is represented by Republican Sen. Kip Bateman), instead of wanting to live closer to work.

He told Cerf he was “turned off” by his explanation.

"I cannot accept that,” Scutari said. “How can I accept that when you have a driver."

Nonetheless, Scutari supported releasing the nomination, citing Cerf’s qualifications.

However, he said he hopes Cerf is more “upfront” in the future.

However, the bulk of the hearing consisted mostly of committee members asking questions on an array of education issues, such as the school funding formula, the former Abbott School districts, fraud in the free lunch school program, and school employees participating in local politics.

One lawmaker called for holding off on approving virtual charter schools until the state could learn more about them. However, Cerf said legislation restricting them probably is not necessary.

Republicans generally support virtual charter schools, saying they provide students another alternative.

Cerf said he supports the creation of charter schools, especially in areas where there are unmet needs within the public school system.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), of Teaneck, who credited Cerf for his responsiveness, said many of the goals Cerf highlighted, such as closing the achievement gap, can be achieved “without going into the for-profit public school model.”

“You have such an interesting background… you’ve been an asset to really roughing up the waters,” she said. “I think you are antennaed particularly when it comes to ethics.”

Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), of Wood-Ridge, also supported the nomination, but added he hopes Cerf works more directly with the Legislature and does not let politics interfere.

The Record - N.J. Senate judiciary panel OKs Cerf as education commissioner

Thursday July 26, 2012, 2:25 PM




Chris Cerf, who has served as the state’s acting education commissioner for about 18 months, won unanimous approval Thursday afternoon from the state Senate Judiciary Committee after a long-delayed confirmation hearing.

The full Senate will now consider his nomination.

Lawmakers asked him about a range of issues, including the oversight of charter schools, school funding and tenure changes.

Cerf, 57, has promoted more rigorous evaluations of teachers and principals, using test data to guide instruction and expanding quality charter schools. He pushed to make keeping tenure dependent on demonstrated effectiveness in the classroom, and played a role in devising the tenure bill that the Legislature recently passed and is awaiting Governor Christie’s signature.

Cerf has also sought to weaken the role of seniority in determining layoffs during budget cuts, arguing that the most talented teachers should keep their jobs. But provisions to end last-in, first-out policies were cut from the tenure bill to ensure its passage.

Some critics say Cerf is developing evaluations that rely too heavily on test scores and flawed computer models to determine a teacher’s contribution to student growth. He has countered that test scores are just one of the measures that should be used to measure achievement, and the forthcoming rating systems will be better than the weak ones widely used now. His plan calls for all districts to use the new evaluations in the 2013-14 school year.

Before becoming acting commissioner, Cerf was the chief executive officer of Sangari Global Education, a private company that provided science curriculums, and he served as senior campaign adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. From 2004 to 2009, he was deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. Before that, he was president of Edison Schools Inc, a private-sector manager of public schools.

Cerf lives with his family in Montclair. His confirmation hearing was delayed because a state senator in Essex County used senatorial courtesy privilege to block it. Last year Cerf began renting an apartment in Montgomery in Somerset County, and the senator there did not hold up his hearing.

Christie nominated Cerf after firing his previous education commissioner, Bret Schundler, following a dispute over a botched application for a federal grant.

Email: brody@northjersey.com

Politickernj  -  Cerf: Only Christie knows whether Ruiz' tenure bill will be signed

By Minhaj Hassan | July 26th, 2012 - 12:10pm


TRENTON – Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said today that he doesn’t know if Gov. Chris Christie will sign Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill, which unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature.

“The only person who knows that is the governor,” Cerf said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into his nomination. “In the end, it’s his decision.”

Cerf then revealed his opinion. He said that from a comprehensive education reform perspective, “it’s a terrible disappointment.”

“It’s a bill that invites you to return to the task (of comprehensive education reform).”

However, looking at the bill on how it addresses the tenure issue, Cerf said, “it’s a pretty good bill.”

The bill revamps how teachers acquire tenure, but was heavily amended as it worked its way through committee earlier this year.


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