N.J. Education Commissioner Chris Cerf to step down

 New Jersey Commissioner of the Department of Education, Christopher D. Cerf addresses a gathering Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

New Jersey Commissioner of the Department of Education, Christopher D. Cerf addresses a gathering Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Chris Cerf will be leaving office at the end of this month after three years as Gov. Chris Christie’s education commissioner, leaving behind big changes — and some tumult.

Appointed in late 2010, Cerf yesterday said he will join the educational software company led by his old boss, former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.


Cerf, who was deputy chancellor in New York under Klein, will serve as CEO of Amplify Insight, a division of Amplify Inc. The company is owned by News Corp., the media giant led by Rupert Murdoch.

He submitted his resignation earlier this month, effective March 1. No announcement has been made as to Cerf’s successor.

The department is expected to announce the resignation today, but Cerf yesterday confirmed the decision and said it came out of both his uncertainty about staying on for a second term and a job offer that was difficult to pass up.

His departure had long been rumored in and outside the department, not unusual for any administration entering a second term.

“For the last three plus years, we have been able to put a number of really significant accomplishments on the board,” Cerf said yesterday.

“I committed to the governor when I came that I would stay for one term,” he said.

“Frankly, this opportunity arose unsolicited, and I fended it off for quite some time, ” he added. And it just became increasingly intriguing for me, and fulfilled an objective I had for the last part of my career, which was to really think about ways to enhance public education through personalized learning and other solutions.”

Cerf will be the first member of Christie’s cabinet to leave office in his second term and since multiple scandals broke around the governor, including the politically driven lane closures on the George Washington Bridge and questions about how Hurricane Sandy recovery aid was distributed.

But Cerf said the timing of his decision had nothing to do with those issues, and praised Christie for being “truly an authentic believer in school reform.”

“None,” he said of the timing in relation to the burgeoning scandals. “The answer is none, absolutely none.”

Maintaining a High Profile

Cerf has been among the state’s highest-profile commissioners in not only Christie’s but other recent administrations.

He was outspoken in arguing for, if not leading, Christie’s school reform agenda, while knocking back its critics at every turn. He particularly pushed for stronger teacher accountability and tenure reforms, tighter reporting and measurement of student achievement, expanded charter schools, and aggressive interventions in New Jersey’s most troubled schools, especially in the state-run districts of Newark and Camden.

The state took over Camden schools last year, and Cerf was central in the appointment of state Superintendent Cami Anderson in Newark.

In the interview yesterday, he was unapologetic about his drawing attention to both the strengths and the shortcomings of New Jersey’s public schools in serving all children adequately.

“There is no question in my mind that shining a light on the enormous successes of public education in this state and the areas of needed improvement” is one of our biggest accomplishments, he said.

“It is just not right in a country that values the equality of opportunity to have in our midst several hundred schools where kids are simply not learning the basics to be successful in life,” he said.

As news becomes public today and reaction starts pouring in, there are sure to be those critical of his tenure, or at least his stewardship of Christie’s agenda.

Some have complained about the pressure created by the new testing and curriculum embodied by the Common Core State Standards, which Cerf embraced. Others have criticized tighter controls on school spending at a time of increased mandates and reduced state funding in a majority of districts.

The pace of change under the new teacher evaluations has been especially contentious, and even was subject of an Assembly committee hearing yesterday.

Maybe most significantly, before Cerf came into office, Christie drastically reduced school funding in the face of the recession-driven revenue cuts, and nearly 80 percent of districts have yet to fully recover. Nonetheless, Cerf has been left to defend the funding reductions and press for new ones.

When asked yesterday about the criticisms, Cerf sought to refute each one, but also didn’t hide from what has been his relish at upsetting the status quo.

“I deeply believe that the only way to not have controversy is to be inconsequential,” he said. “I think it is fair that I have never been viewed as a caretaker of the position.”

“I have based policy decision on what I think is the best interest of students,” Cerf said. “Sometimes that is not consistent with consensus or a lack of controversy.”


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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