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Garden State Elitism or Election Shenanigans?

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by Jeanne Allen
June 6, 2013

It’s very hard to believe that famed Governor Chris Christie of the great state of New Jersey would fear a loss of power come November as he seeks reelection as Governor. He’s enjoyed a long and rich history of support in the Garden State, owing in large part to his ability to stand up to special interests, and most notably, the teachers unions. Then why, some are wondering, is he permitting (Encouraging? Turning a blind eye toward?) his Commissioner of Education who has continually discouraged the creation and growth of innovative and often organic schools of choice through the state’s 17 year old charter law? Just yesterday, Chris Cerf turned over his Department’s previous decision to permit two virtual charter schools to open, citing both procedural as well as ideological issues with the concept. This is not new. In previous months and years, NJ officials have misread charter applications, presumed knowledge about individuals, organizations, and educational approaches with which they have little experience, and thus discouraged a movement that started in 1996 to turn around failed “Abbott” districts and middle class enclaves that tolerated mediocrity. The bi-partisan movement was once robust and understood that without trying new things, we’d never succeed. While a full majority of NJ kids still read below basic standards on national assessments, the state’s leadership seems to believe that picking and choosing favorites to come into NJ or expand is a recipe for success. Looking at cities from Detroit to DC, one can easily recognize that it simply ain’t so. Meanwhile, the leadership touts its successes with teacher evaluation reforms which are modest and Newark restructuring efforts which have done little overall to change a school system still firmly in the hands of union bosses.

It probably doesn’t feel that way to the NJ Commissioner of Education. Having heard from him on many occasions when I’ve uttered similar complaints, the response comes down to things like ” I have the highest confidence in my analysts, the lead one is a PhD from Stanford and one of the leading experts in the country” and “Our AG [Attorney General] has grave concerns about their [virtuals] legality under our current law which I am trying to get fixed. Not sure how this will turn out in light of internal debate. I’d much rather have their cooperation in getting this right for future openings than fighting about this now, but I expect that is too much to hope.” That was a year ago. It was too much to hope.

Meanwhile, he offered this in his letter of explanation as to why he would pull the plug on two previously approved schools whose online learning delivery modality has been celebrated by thought leaders the nation over:

“Since the time the initial charter application was approved in January 2011, the discussion regarding virtual charter schools has continued in education as well as legislative circles within the state and across the country. In part because New Jersey law did not anticipate operations of an entirely virtual school, ongoing analysis continues amongst all stakeholders regarding the legal and practical implications for opening a virtual charter school in New Jersey that will enroll and deliver instruction to students located across the entire state. Complicating the analysis is the fact that, despite the presence of virtual charter schools in other states, there is inadequate independent research into both their academic effectiveness, as well as the necessary elements needed to ensure effective oversight. Equally important from the point of view of an authorizer is the lack of sufficient information or research on effective accountability or quality assurance practices for authorizers of virtual charter schools.”

Legalese, hogwash and CYA material. In fact, such language is right out of the opposition’s playbook!

Today the Department and its Governor are moving to take over Camden from dismal educational failure. That failure is supposed to be addressed by a number of partnerships with school groups, many of which have been already privately negotiated. How will the Governor propose to change the state of education in Camden without utilizing the state’s charter law and engaging groups of all kinds with all different approaches? As they squash the kind of work that online education succeeds in accomplishing for a unique but wide variety of students, what’s the possibility that they’ll succeed in Camden. Indeed, the two Chris’ seem to be suggesting by their actions that if they are in charge, they can move mountains, but others cannot. That’s hardly the experience school reformers have had some twenty years and thousands of new charter schools later, let alone the evidence of research based effective-schools models that confirms that decision making closest to kids — by parents and teachers — combined with accountability and freedom from onerous contracts — is the recipe for school success no matter what one’s lot in life.

Amherst College and Columbia Law-educated Cerf should know that and want to do whatever he can to extend the same kinds of educational offerings to students in the state which he helps govern. Indeed his alma maters are famous for adopting new innovations regularly, including online learning, intended to expand the endless possibilities that education is supposed to be about.

*An earlier edition of this piece incorrectly cited Cerf as attending Harvard and Deerfield and has since been corrected.

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