NYC Deputy Chancellor Tapped as NJ Education Chief

Monday, Dec 20, 2010  |  Updated 6:30 PM EDT
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NYC Deputy Chancellor Tapped as NJ Education Chief

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Gov. Chris Christie has nominated a reform-minded executive who once ran the nation's largest for-profit public school management company to become New Jersey's next education commissioner.

Christopher Cerf, 56, was president and chief operating officer of Edison Schools Inc., the groundbreaking for-profit public schools operator. A former New York education official, Cerf indicated that he shares the governor's commitment to school choice, merit pay and accountability. He appeared with Christie at a Statehouse news conference Monday when the nomination was announced officially, days after word first leaked out.

"We live in a state that should be very, very proud of its educational system, but we also live in a state where the gap between those who are born to economic circumstances that are positive and those who are born to poverty simply do not have equal opportunity for success," said Cerf, who lives in Montclair. "That, in my judgment, is a shameful problem that all of us should be throwing ourselves at with everything we have to correct."

Christie picked Cerf to replace Bret Schundler, whom he fired in August after the state lost out on a $400 million federal education grant. The department has been run by an acting commissioner since. The nomination of Cerf, a Democrat, requires Senate confirmation.

"I am thankful that Chris Cerf is bringing to New Jersey his passion for education and experienced leadership to help enact the bold and innovative education measures we need to finally bring a quality education to every child in our state," Christie said. "Mr. Cerf's innovative leadership will be invaluable as we address the civil rights issue of our time."

As education commissioner, Cerf will walk into a bitter battle between the teachers' union and Christie, a Republican who slashed nearly $820 million in education money from the state budget last year. The governor asked teachers to accept a one-year pay freeze, then campaigned against school budgets when the teachers' union balked.

The union, the New Jersey Education Association, represents 200,000 public school teachers. Its spokesman, Steve Wollmer, said the union was cautiously optimistic about the new nominee.

"It's a new year, a new commissioner, a new opportunity to open a dialogue with this administration," Wollmer said. "The public — and our members — have had enough of this conflict with the governor."

Cerf indicated his support for revising teacher tenure, which he said started out as a safeguard against arbitrary firing but has morphed into lifetime protection.

"We can't live in a world where it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars of administrative process and lawyers' fees to terminate a teacher that is obviously ineffective with children," he said Monday.

Cerf comes with a reputation of having worked collaboratively with the teachers union in New York and having forged an agreement with the National Education Association over merit grants for high-performing schools.

Wollmer said the state teachers union OK'd a similar merit pay proposal in New Jersey's Race to the Top grant application, but Christie ordered the original application hastily rewritten after finding out that Schundler had struck a deal with the union. An error in the revised application may have cost New Jersey the grant.

Patrick Diegnan, a Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, cited Cerf's extensive experience.

"Hopefully this signals a commitment on behalf of the administration to again make education a top priority for New Jersey," Diegnan said.

Cerf went to work for New York public schools in 2004. He closed 90 failing schools and boosted the city's charter school options during his tenure. He left the deputy chancellor's post last year to become senior adviser on education for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's re-election campaign.

A former high school history teacher, he attended Amherst College in Massachusetts. He went to Columbia University Law School, clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and worked for President Bill Clinton as an associate counsel.

He and Christie have known each other since Cerf's days at Edison Schools.

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