UPDATED: Christie Reportedly Picks Former NYC Official as Schools Chief

By Sean Cavanagh — December 20, 2010 2 min read
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[UPDATE (1:53): Gov. Christie makes it official, announcing he will nominate Cerf as New Jersey’s schools chief and calling him a “widely-respected leader in comprehensive school system reform.”]

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has chosen a former top New York City schools official known for supporting charter schools and demanding better performance from teachers as his next education commissioner, media outlets are reporting.

Christopher D. Cerf, 56, worked as top aide to Chancellor Joel Klein in New York City and is on the board of charter school operator KIPP’s network in Newark, N.J. His KIPP bio also says he served as an associate legal counsel in Bill Clinton’s presidential administration.

Cerf is a Democrat, according to a report in the Star-Ledger, while Christie is a Republican and regarded as something of a favored figure on that party’s national political scene. But the descriptions of Cerf suggest he’s ideologically compatible with Christie on several key fronts. Cerf has pushed for new approaches to tenure review, based more on evidence of gains in student achievement than on longevity. That dovetails with Christie, who has called for new approaches to evaluating and rewarding teachers based on performance, and who has clashed repeatedly with the New Jersey Education Association, a teachers’ union.

The Star-Ledger also reports that the NJEA is encouraged by Cerf’s previous, solid relationship with the American Federation of Teachers’ branch in New York City. One of Cerf’s duties will presumably involve working with—or trying to overcome opposition from—the NJEA, in promoting Christie’s agenda. In a 2008 story in Education Week, Cerf acknowledged the difficulties of negotiating major personnel changes with unions, in colorful terms.

“Half the time it’s a knife fight in a dark room, and half the time we work well together,” he said.

The road that has brought New Jersey to the apparent selection of Cerf has been a wild one. Earlier this year, Christie fired his former education commissioner, Bret Schunder, after an error on the state’s application in the federal Race to the Top competition potentially cost the state $400 million. (Schundler, as well as the NJEA, disputed the governor’s account of events and what caused the error.)

Speculation later emerged that Christie was interested in choosing former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whose profile on the national stage seems to grow by the day. Cerf’s hiring would still have to be approved by New Jersey’s Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, according to a legislative staff member, who declined to comment on the nomination until it’s official.

For teachers, administrators, and school advocates and activists familiar with Cerf’s work, what should New Jersey expect?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.