Cerf talks charter expansion, 'One Newark' and the future of Brick City's schools

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on November 12, 2015

Newark Superintendent of Schools Christopher Cerf presents an annual report to state Board of Education in Trenton. Wednesday, November, 4, 2015


NEWARK - Since arriving in Newark in early July, Superintendent of Schools Chris Cerf has had no shortage of challenges.

In addition to chipping away at a budget deficit of more than $60 million and refining the city's recently implemented universal enrollment system after a bumpy start, he has attempted to calm a wave of frustration from many parents and officials over conditions in public schools.

Throughout his first four months in the role, Cerf has repeatedly attempted to stress signs of progress in Newark schools, citing awards for its implementation of technology into classrooms and studies indicating it is outperforming cities with similar socioeconomic conditions across the country, while battling what he repeatedly calls a "narrative of negativity."

"I just think it's important as we talk about our challenges and as we talk about bumps in the road, as we recognize that over the last several years we have certainly made some mistakes and need to do better, we not disregard the tremendous successes that have been achieved," he said.

His short term has not been free from controversy, however. The protests that came to characterize his predecessor Cami Anderson's tenure recently resurfaced, stoked largely by efforts from charter school networks to expand their reach in Newark, sparking anger and suspicion from some segments of an already mistrustful public.

A longtime advocate of education reforms and a former state education commissioner, he has also fended off accusations over his role in the sweeping changes in city schools.

On Monday, Cerf sat down with NJ Advance Media to discuss the state of the city's education system, clarify his past involvement with its controversial reforms and  what its future may hold long after he is gone and schools have been returned to local control.

Here are some highlights from the lengthy interview. The full version can be read here.

What does Newark's education system look like when you're done?

Well there are a couple things I think we can say for sure. The first is that we will have returned the district to local control. That is a centerpiece of my commitment and of the work, and we are working closely with the Newark Education Success Board and with the community to craft a path towards that objective.

Here's essentially what I hope the system looks like when we pass it off. First of all I hope that we are all organized around the central objective of providing every child who lives in Newark with a free quality public education, and that all of our policy decisions and all of the fiscal decisions are oriented around that objective. The second is that we recognize the purpose of public education is to give every child an equal opportunity at success in life, and that we've leveled the playing field so that all schools have an equal opportunity to succeed.

The third is that we stop focusing as much as we have on some of the sort of political issues and continue to focus on the educational outcomes. I think that a big part of that is that we act the way our parents act, which is to say we want quality public schools and how a school came into being, whether as a magnet school, or a traditional school or a charter public school or a county (vocational education) school is of secondary significance compared to the opportunity that all children have to choose a quality school.

You have a long history in education reform circles, in New York and elsewhere. There have been some accusations from some segments of the community that you're here as an agent to "charterize" the community. How do you respond to that?

Well it's completely false, and it is very important that that narrative be responded to fully and accurately. Just a couple of facts - I was deputy chancellor of New York City public schools and I believe there were about 1,500 traditional public schools and about 1 percent of that was charter schools - perhaps 2 or 3 percent - very small. In New Jersey, I was commissioner of education- there were about 2,500 traditional public schools and about 85 charter schools while I was commissioner. I had the power of life and death over charter schools and I closed 10 percent of the charter schools.

Lastly, I will say this - and it is nothing short of remarkable to me that there is not a broad understanding of this. I was not part of the picture in summer of 2010, when Mr. Zuckerberg and now Sen. Booker and the governor were discussing the possibility of a $100M gift. I was otherwise engaged.

But when I became commissioner shortly after that, one of the first things I did was to fly down to Washington D.C. and meet in the private office of (American Federation of Teachers President ) Randi Weingarten. And I said to her "Randi it appears that we have a very substantial opportunity here. There's a large amount of philanthropic funds, they're very energized by charter schools. I want to make sure that most of that money goes into improving the traditional public school system, so here's what I think we ought to do together. Let us agree on a (collective bargaining agreement) that is the first of its kind in the nation. Let's pay our teachers more, let's pay them according to the degree to which they are effective educators, let's stop having steps and bumps based on whatever degree you got and based instead on the quality of the educational preparation you have. Let's agree in advance to expand learning time in the schools and on the terms of compensation that would be associated with that. If we do that, right, if you'll agree to that, then I will agree that this is not going to be New Orleans."

We are going to have a modest expansion of alternative choices, to include charters, to include some new traditional public schools. But we're not going to quote 'charterize' the district." And that is exactly what happened. If you look at the numbers and you go from that day forward we did get that collective bargaining agreement, and we have expanded the number of charters to then about 12.5 percent to about 28 percent. We also brought in a number of non-charter traditional public schools, Bard Early College being an example. Eagle Academy, Young Girls Academy and many more. So we've expanded the choices available to parents to include charters, but we have not quote 'charterized' the district, in fact that was never our intent.

Can you give a sense of during your time as commissioner, precisely what your role was in terms of the framework of One Newark, and the implementation of it?

I'm not going to use that term, because it is so misunderstood. But essentially as a state-operated district, it had a direct line of report to me. Now bear in mind that there were 560 districts in New Jersey. In addition to Newark there was Camden and Paterson and others. Most of my time and attention was not focused on Newark at all - it was focused on broader issues that affect the entire state.

That said, I was very much made aware of the particular plans and the progress, but gave a very sort of long level of latitude, as I do in my general management style. But specifically, you're probably referring to universal enrollment. I do believe in the broad outlines of that. I do believe that giving parents choice to figure out what is best for their own children and then creating a system that helps to broaden that choice, is an absolutely valid and valuable point of view. I also believe that we should not allow schools to determine who gets to go to them or who gets to stay in them. That left to their own devices, some schools, traditional schools and charter schools, wouldn't potentially misuse that power.

PLUS: Cerf tells state board Newark schools succeeding in spite of funding shortage

So I did believe and I do believe in the broad idea of taking central ownership of student enrollment, not leaving it to individual schools, and building everything on trying to prefer parents' choices. So I did know about that in advance, and I supported it. Now I will also say, that the execution of those values, particularly in the first year, was problematic, meaning it was a very complex system, it was new and there were plenty of bumps and wrinkles. I will also say that it is worthy of revision and modification. For example, I personally think we should give a greater preference to neighborhood. I personally believe in giving what's called sibling preference, in giving priority to a family who already has a student in a particular school is a priority that we ought to create. But I also believe that essentially you need to have neutral tiebreakers.

When you have more people that want a seat at a school then there are seats at the schools, you don't want to leave it to politics. You don't want it to be a transaction between powerful people. You want to have neutral rules that give everybody an equal preference.

You referenced problems with the execution of One Newark, do you think you bear any personal responsibility for that?

I bear accountability for 100 percent.

In what way?

Well, I'm the buck stops here guy.

Ever since KIPP announced it was planning on expanding in Newark, there's been a bit of fervor from some people who think it could have a major impact on the public school system. Is that justified? What do you think the impact would be?

Well I think there has been a pretty substantial overreaction to that, and its probably based on legitimate concerns and some distrust, and some failures to effectively communicate. Going back to (former Newark superintendent) Dr. Bolden, the trajectory, the growth of charter school students has been kind of slow and steady.I actually said in a public forum, I believe at the (New Jersey Performing Arts Center), the majority of schools in Newark will always be traditional public schools. That is an outcome that is compelled by economics, politics, educational philosophy and the like. The number of charter schools and students in charter schools are going to stay within that constraint.

The KIPP schools for example, I am extremely confident that whether the state grants that application or doesn't, it will not make a difference of one student or one campus in Newark next year. If it makes a difference the following year it will be very, very, very small. First of all, people don't understand that the state makes charter decisions, not the school superintendent, so it's literally out of my hands.

But I do know from having been commissioner, that there's a long way from granting a charter school application and a school actually opening, and there's lots of opportunities for visiting what would be the impact on the district, is the school actually ready to open, and the like. So I do think that there has been a pretty substantial overreaction if the measure is what are the practical consequences of the application.

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