Lessons in education reform

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Christopher Cerf, slated to speak at the Rochester Beacon’s May 13 forum, is widely credited as a key figure in turning around the troubled public school system in Newark, N.J.

Christopher Cerf is not an easy man to put in a box.

Widely credited as a key figure in turning around the long-troubled public school system in Newark, N.J., during a three-year stint as the system’s superintendent, Cerf is slated to keynote the Rochester Beacon’s May 13 forum on solutions to challenges faced by the Rochester City School District. 

Put under state control in 1995, the Newark schools had since languished in a condition that will strike an all-too-familiar chord with Rochester residents concerned about the state of the Flower City’s schools: chronically poor graduation rates and low test scores. 

Like Rochester, Newark’s poverty rate has steadily climbed, in recent years matching Rochester’s in the 30 percent range. 

Leading roles

A lifelong Democrat, Cerf describes himself as coming of age in “the People’s Republic of Cambridge,” a Massachusetts municipality that is home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

In a wry take on Cambridge’s generally decidedly progressive demographic, the Urban Dictionary defines the municipality as “an independent state just north of Boston … (where) more people voted for Nader than Bush in 2000.”

“I never even met a Republican until I was in college.” says Cerf, who adds he has never wavered in party registration. 

Even so, as an educator and an attorney, Cerf, who has held prominent posts under more than one Republican, has never shied from crossing the aisle. 

Cerf’s stint as Newark superintendent was preceded by a term as the Garden State’s top education official, a post he held for four years. He stepped down in 2014 to become CEO of Amplify Insight, a division of the digital curriculum assessment firm Amplify, which at the time was owned by News Corp., the sprawling media conglomerate headed by Rupert Murdoch whose properties include Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. 

Cerf’s return to the public sector in 2010 came at the behest of then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was looking for someone to lead Newark’s public school system out of a wilderness it had been wandering in for more than two decades.

When Cerf stepped in as the city’s school system chief, Newark’s schools were in turmoil. The first state-appointed superintendent, the late Beverly Hall, had clashed with parents and departed after four years, leaving behind an outsize budget deficit. 

Conditions remained sour until 2010 when former Newark Mayor Cory Booker courted Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a partner in seeking a fix for the city’s schools. In a highly publicized initiative, Zuckerberg pumped $100 million into the system, which like Rochester has a total budget of almost $1 billion. 

Booker, who is now New Jersey’s junior U.S. senator and one of many Democrats hoping to snag the party’s 2020 presidential nod, had recruited Zuckerberg a year into his odd-couple partnership with Christie. The trio formulated a five-year plan that featured closing underperforming schools, adding charter schools and seeking changes in teachers-union rules.

“We can flip a whole city and create a national model,” boasted Booker, whose stated goals included dramatically expanding the city’s charter-school inventory.

The effort did not gain wide community support. In 2011, Christie named Cami Anderson, a former New York City school official and Teach for America alumna, as Newark’s school superintendent. Cerf, who as the New York City school system’s deputy chancellor had worked with Anderson, says her appointment to the Newark schools post came on his and Booker’s recommendation.

Anderson’s program was in line with Booker’s and Christie’s vision. Initiatives she carried out included replacing underperforming schools, persuading charter schools to relax enrollment policies, and centralizing charter school and public school enrollment under district control.

Her style and the pace of change under Anderson’s leadership did not sit well with the community. Elimination of some neighborhood schools and extensive layoffs to bring the budget into line sparked outrage. 

Dale Russakoff, who as a Washington Post reporter had closely followed the city’s school reform effort, authored a widely praised book chronicling the Booker-Zuckerberg-Christie initiative: “The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?” In the book, she describes Anderson’s plans for the district as “16-dimensional chess” that flew far above the heads of local residents and school personnel. 

According to Russakoff, Anderson became so unpopular that she stopped attending school board meetings because she was constantly subjected to heckling by disgruntled teachers and parents.  

Answering a call for change

Cerf began his term as Newark schools chief under a new mayor, Ras Baraka. A onetime teacher, Baraka is the son of the poet and political activist Amiri Baraka. Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, the elder Baraka, who recently died, had deep roots in Newark. Ras Baraka came into office with goals that included returning the city’s schools to local control and a skeptical view of Booker’s and Christie’s Zuckerberg-enhanced reform push. 

In the mayoral campaign, Baraka’s supporters “pummeled” One Newark, a school reorganization plan Anderson was proposing, the New York Times reported shortly after Baraka’s 2014 election. As a onetime colleague of Anderson’s who had backed her installation as Newark schools chief, Cerf initially was seen by the community as suspect.

Though Baraka at first expected Cerf to be “very rigid” and “carry the governor’s water,” the new superintendent and the mayor formed a productive partnership

Much of the tension between Cerf and the mayor abated as Baraka, who made return of the city’s schools to local control a campaign-platform plank, grew more assured that Cerf would honor his promise to depart on schedule.

Cerf, who says he was satisfied that the schools had been stabilized and were on a good track, left several months before his contract expired.

“It’s true that my contract had not expired, but I left on my schedule,” Cerf says.

Managing reform

An advocate of charter schools and backer of essentially the same kind of reforms that had set the community’s teeth on edge since the start of the Booker and Christie reform push, Cerf managed to calm the waters without substantially changing course. Initiatives he continued to back include greater school choice, elimination of seniority, and giving school administrators complete control over their schools’ staffing decisions.    

Reporting on Cerf’s performance after some nine months as superintendent, the national magazine Education Week found that while school board meetings were no longer occasions for the rancorous name calling that had driven Anderson away, Cerf still faced heavy and sometimes vocal criticism from a still-suspicious community.

At his first formal meeting with community members, attended by some 200, Cerf calmly listened to complaints and quibbles of audience members who questioned his data, doubting that under the controversial One Newark plan as many parents as Cerf claimed had chosen to send kindergarteners to non-neighborhood schools, the magazine reported. Protesters also questioned Cerf’s statement that children had been put into charter schools only if their parents agreed to the placement. 

Writing in the The 74, an education news website maintained by a national pro-school choice non-profit of the same name, New Jersey education blogger Laura Waters in a January 2018 post, written on the eve of Cerf’s retirement, gave him high marks for “dialing down the discussion.”

Baraka praised Cerf for agreeing to get out of the way.

“I’m glad he’s resigning because it changes the conversation. We could never talk about the issues that affected the school district because it was always about him. He’d become a distraction. Once he leaves, the onus is on us to deliver what we laid out for our city,” the mayor told the New York Times in 2017.

In the same interview, Baraka conceded that while he and Cerf disagreed on some points, Cerf had been willing to have “an open and honest discussion” and that both shared the overarching goal of improving student achievement.

Proof of success

Cerf himself points to results as proof of the effectiveness of the reform effort’s success. The Newark schools’ graduation rates, which stood at 59 percent in 2011 when the reform kicked off, for example, had climbed to 78 percent in 2017.

Cerf does not take sole credit for that improvement. Anderson’s public relations difficulties notwithstanding, Cerf makes clear that he believes that successes he is credited with achieving sprang from Anderson’s initiatives.   

“It took three to four years to show positive yield,” says Cerf of Anderson’s efforts.

In fact, despite the rancor Anderson inspired, gains were evident during her tenure. Graduation rates in 2016 had increased to 73.5 percent, an impressive jump from 2011’s 59 percent rate and not far behind the 78 percent rate at Cerf’s exit.

An interest in education

Despite a detour into a legal career, it was always his intent to become an educator, Cerf says.

After graduating from Amherst University with a history degree in 1977, Cerf taught advanced placement history at a Cincinnati private school for four years before leaving to attend law school.

After graduating from Columbia Law School, where he was editor in chief of the Columbia Law Review, Cerf clerked first for U.S. District Judge J. Skelly Wright, a senior status Truman appointee who had served as chief judge of the federal District of Columbia Circuit. From Skelly’s chambers Cerf moved next to the chambers of Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Ronald Reagan appointee, for whom he also clerked. 

Cerf then went to work in the administration of a Democratic politician he describes as “an obscure Arkansas governor.” When his boss, Bill Clinton, went to Washington, Cerf followed, serving as associate counsel in Clinton’s presidential administration. 

“I worked mostly on policy,” Cerf says. 

Cerf continued as a lawyer, twice arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. In baseball terms, he batted 500, winning one case and losing another. Both cases were in defense of prisoners. Cerf downplays the experience. Neither case was precedent-setting. Even he has trouble recalling the details, he insists.

“To give you an idea, in the second case I was on the docket after a case was on a big abortion rights issue,” Cerf says. “The court was packed with spectators and press. When my case came up, it emptied out.”

Cerf’s migration from law back to education began with a job as general counsel for Edison Schools Inc., a private, for-profit public school management firm now called Edison Learning. He eventually was named president and chief operating officer of the firm.  

After leaving Edison, Cerf worked as a consultant to the New York City public school system during the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg.

Comparing his experience under the Bloomberg and Christie administrations, Cerf says, “I worked for a Republican and a fake Republican”—a wry comment on Bloomberg’s post-mayoral desertion of the GOP for independent status as well as a nod to Bloomberg’s brief flirtation with the idea of joining the crowded field of would-be Democratic presidential nominees. 

Initially titled chief transformation officer for the New York City school system, Cerf was named deputy chancellor of the city’s Department of Education in 2007. He worked under Chancellor Joel Klein, who also was Cerf’s onetime law partner. In 2009, Cerf quit to join Bloomberg’s reelection campaign as an education adviser. A year later, Christie named Cerf as New Jersey’s top education official.

Mixed results

In the year since Cerf’s departure as Newark’s school superintendent, the city’s schools have shown mixed results. In a report posted earlier this month, the non-profit education news website, Chalkbeat, reviewed the Newark schools’ 2018 showing, noting that the 2018 graduation rate took a dip, falling from 2017’s 78 percent peak to 75.7 percent, while the district’s schools showed modest gains on state test results. 

While a single year’s results might prove to be mere blips on the district’s long-term statistical picture, they might also provide fodder for the Booker-Christie reform’s critics to renew attacks, especially as Booker mounts a presidential campaign, the Chalkbeat reporter speculated. 

Meanwhile, citing a recently published “scathing five-part report” alleging that New Jersey charter school operators are cashing in on real estate deals, the New Jersey Education Association, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, this month renewed a call it began in 2017 for a halt to new charter school certification in the state. 

A move by the state to rein in charter schools, which are a key component of Newark’s reform, is under study by a commission formed by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who replaced Christie in 2018 after running on a platform that included a call for a timeout on charter school expansion.  

Weighing in last year, Baraka backed Murphy’s proposed moratorium on charter school expansion, calling funding diverted from traditional schools to finance charter schools an unacceptable drain on the public school system. If charter schools are allowed to “just grow, grow, grow, it will suck the life out of traditional schools—and we can’t have that,” Baraka told Chalkbeat.

Cerf vehemently disagrees with the five-part series the teachers’ union cites. Its premise is founded on a mischaracterization of how New Jersey’s charter schools finance their buildings, a method they are forced to use because of legal barriers the state’s teachers’ union had a hand in erecting, he says.

“If you read through the five-part report, it explicitly says that no one is actually profiting,” Cerf says.

Everyone has a place

Cerf’s take on the controversy is that all types of schools—charter schools, traditional neighborhood schools, magnet and community schools—have a place. Regardless of school design, however, the main emphasis should be on what is most beneficial to children, he says.

The concerns of teachers and other school employees as employees are legitimate, Cerf says. But they must take a back seat to the needs of students. Using a favorite illustration, he says the concerns of all actors with an interest in public education—parents, teachers, politicians and children—can be mapped as a series of interlocking circles in a Venn diagram.

“People imagine the circles all overlap, but you’d be surprised at how small the areas where they actually intersect are,” Cerf says.

If the interests of children are to be most optimally served, schools have to be maximally flexible to deliver the best education. That means each building has to be free to hire and fire as best suits its students and must not be hampered by rules like seniority or systems that centrally assign teachers to schools, he believes.

If schools are to succeed, says Cerf, they must have continuity of leadership, give parents and students the absolute ability to choose the kind of school that best suits them, be able to train and recruit the best teachers, and consistently apply standards.

To that list might be added: a community that can agree on how to best achieve such ends.  

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