Analysis: As Chris Cerf Steps Down as Newark Superintendent, a Look Back at a Career Spent Breaking the Tie in Favor of New Jersey’s Children

Chris Cerf tours a classroom at Mount Vernon School. (Photo credit: Naomi Nix)

When then-Gov. Chris Christie announced in 2015 that Chris Cerf would replace the divisive, albeit visionary, Cami Anderson as superintendent of Newark Public Schools, Star-Ledger editor Tom Moran jeered, “if Cerf lasts three years in this job, I’ll light my hair on fire.”

Cerf’s friends called him a masochist for accepting the offer to lead the state’s largest and most fractured district.

But for Cerf — who will step down Thursday after three years on the job, as the district resumes local control after a 22-year state takeover — it wasn’t a matter of masochism or pyromania. It was an inherent drive to remedy the inequities of a system ostensibly designed to effectively educate all children, regardless of ZIP code, but that failed them at every level.

In some ways, it was a repeat of 2011, when Cerf agreed to lead the demoralized New Jersey Department of Education after the previous commissioner, Bret Schundler, was fired for botching an application to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program (and losing a potential $400 million). The American Enterprise Institute’s Andy Smarick, who had recently been hired by Schundler as deputy commissioner, described the deep gloom in the department prior to Cerf’s arrival as “the darkest period of my professional career.”

Why would Cerf take on these two fraught tasks in a state where politics asphyxiates educational reform efforts, where student outcomes are trumped up to justify stasis, where McMansions come bundled with access to high-quality schools?

“I can’t think of anything more profoundly unjust than the reality that people are born into circumstances that determine their life outcomes,” he told me recently. “No matter where you start, you should have an equal chance. Public education is supposed to be that catalytic force, and it’s not succeeding in that mission.”

If you look at kids from households in the lowest 10 percent of earnings, he continued, “by just about every measure, birth dictates life outcomes. I can’t understand why it is in this country that this value doesn’t dominate our policy decisions. Far too often, when that value collides with another, the interests of children are subjugated.”

If you privilege the interests of children over adults, you don’t care whether a public school is charter or traditional; all that matters is that students have access to high-quality schools. As commissioner — New Jersey’s sole charter school authorizer — Cerf approved top-flight charters, yet closed down 10 percent of the sector for low performance. “We will continue to hold every charter school accountable both for the quality of its educational program and for equality of access to all students,” he said.

In 2012, a year into Cerf’s tenure as commissioner, the New Jersey Legislature decided to reform the state’s teacher tenure and evaluation reform law. Education reformers, advocating for the children, wanted an end to seniority-based layoffs, as did the bill’s architect, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz. But New Jersey Education Association leaders, as well as lobbyists and legislators dependent on union largesse — advocating for the adults — were adamantly opposed. Ruiz reluctantly inserted the last in, first out layoffs into the draft bill in order to secure passage.

Another commissioner might have played the political game of portraying failure as success. Not Cerf. “If this is our one shot at reform,” he said, “this is a terrible disappointment.”

“I have always visualized the many interests involved in education as a Venn diagram,” he told me. “There are the interests of children, the interests of employees — which are perfectly legitimate — the interests of commercial outfits like vendors and publishers. The great myth of public education is that the circles of this Venn diagram neatly converge, one concentric circle over another, but the truth is there are so many ways that the circles fail to overlap. My duty, that I hope has guided everything I do in this space, is is to break the tie in favor of children, largely because they have no other advocate.”

In 2014, Cerf resigned as commissioner to run an educational software company called Amplify, located in a trendy part of Brooklyn.

Why exchange such a comfortable gig for a job that got Cami Anderson run out of town? “I’d been involved in Newark well before I was commissioner. In fact,” he said, “I urged [then-Mayor] Cory Booker to take on the schools there. That’s why I came back.”

“There’s been a tremendous amount of good work done there, but, as is almost inevitable, if you elevate peace and harmony, you’re going to have a continuation of the status quo,” he explained. “The best way to get the same results is to delude yourself into thinking that you can do what hasn’t worked but do it better. Doing things differently guarantees resistance from those who are invested in the status quo.”

Cerf told Christie he saw two ways forward. One was to “lean in, throttle down” on the current path for three more years until the next governor was seated — “a perfectly responsible path.” But that path, he said, would have incurred the great risk that “we’ll see in Newark what we saw in New York City” after Mayor Michael Bloomberg left office and his successor, Bill de Blasio, arrived with far more reactionary ideas about public education. “When a new administration comes in, there’s revenge and reversal.”

The second path, Cerf told the governor, was to use the next three years to build up the empowerment of Newark parents so they’d insist on a school district that privileges the needs of families — school choice, high expectations, accountability — and “build a sense of ownership, have people take a second look and say, ‘We don’t like everything, but there are foundations here that we want to maintain, not tear down.’ ”

For Cerf, this meant leading the district back to local control, repairing relations with city leaders (Ras Baraka became Newark’s mayor by demonizing Anderson; Ryan Hill, executive director of KIPP NJ, says Cerf “helped Newark heal”), depoliticizing school improvement, and plugging a $100 million budget deficit. And always, always, doubling down on student equity and academic growth.

Indeed, Newark student outcomes are attracting national attention. In October, researchers from Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research released a study that showed the district’s high school graduation rate “increased dramatically” (from 60 percent to 78 percent), that Newark students made “significant strides” in closing the achievement gap with the state, and that, controlling for poverty and English learner status, students made “significant gains” in math and reading between 2009 and 2017.

Another report, from the Center for Reinventing Public Education, surveyed 50 cities across the country and found that “only about 8 percent of disadvantaged students were enrolled in ‘beat the odds’ schools,” except for one “outlier” — Newark — with “close to 40 percent of students enrolled in ‘beat the odds’ schools in both math and reading.”

“What I’m proudest of,” Cerf told me, “is that three times as many African-American kids attend schools that outscore the state average.”

The challenge for Newark as it resumes local control — the challenge for all of New Jersey, for that matter — is to preserve Cerf’s focus on equity, accountability, honesty, and student success. No acts of masochism or hair-lighting required, just the political and ethical will to break the tie in favor of children.

Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics at NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She just finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, and was president for nine of those years.

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