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Threatened With Firing ny New Governor, N.J. School Chief Fred

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Copyright 1982

Bergen, NJ--New Jersey's new governor, Thomas H. Kean, promised repeatedly in his campaign that if elected he would remove Commissioner of Education Fred G. Burke, with whom he has had sharp philosophical differences and whose seven-year tenure has often been marked by controversy.

Last week, Mr. Burke spared Mr. Kean the effort by submitting his resignation during the pair's first face-to-face meeting since the new Republican governor won a cliff-hanging election in November.

Mr. Burke's decision to quit came a week after disclosure of a two-year-old--but unpublicized--opinion by the state attorney general stating that the commissioner's term, contrary to a widely held belief, would expire in June 1982 rather than June 1984. Harold L. Hodes, deputy chief of staff to outgoing Governor Brendan Byrne, had asked the attorney general to rule on whether or not Mr. Burke's completion of the previous commissioner's unexpired term also counted as part of his five-year contract.

The reason for the delay in the release of that ruling was not clear last week.

Mr. Burke said, however, that by timing his resignation for March 31, 1982, more than two months after the gubernatorial inauguration, he and the new governor were both able to make a point.

"I have some very strong feelings that the term for commissioner should have some integrity so that the intent of the lawmakers that education be buffered from the most obvious political kinds of decisions, like elections, be maintained," Mr. Burke said.

However, the commissioner acknowledged that as governor, Mr. Kean has the right to select his own education officials.

Despite the controversy his actions often sparked, Mr. Burke said he is not bitter about his experience in New Jersey, which he termed the "toughest seven years" of his life.

"New Jersey is a complex state, its greatest resource is its sophisticated citizenry," Mr. Burke said. "One ought to expect that everything one does in New Jersey will be carefully scrutinized."

A close look at his performance, Mr. Burke believes, would lead to a positive appraisal. In particular, he said, he is proud of his role in implementing the Thorough and Efficient Education Act of 1975, which sought to redistribute the burden of school financing and which also led to the classification of schools by student scores on basic-skills tests.

Mr. Burke termed the law "the most profound reform in public education to occur in the United States in the past half-century."

"It generally established New Jersey as the bellwether state for the improvement of education in the country," he said.

But not all agree with that assessment, including Mr. Kean, who charged that implementation of the law emphasized mediocrity rather than excellence.

Mr. Kean claims the law has created "a network of bureaucrats, monitors, and consultants who set identical standards for all schools," and he has vowed to "dismantle the bureaucratic monster" it created.

Mr. Burke, who has served as chief state school officer of Rhode Island and a professor of social science and dean of international studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said he is looking at various opportunities in international and higher education.

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