Who will Governor Christie chose to be his next education czar?

Last week New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf announced that he was leaving the Department of Education to head a new educational technology company called Amplify Insight, a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Questions whirled through cyberspace: Who is Gov. Christie going to nominate for Cerf’s replacement? Is Cerf leaving to distance himself from Christie’s Bridgegate debacle? Is Cerf joining Amplify in order to unethically profit from his Jersey connections as schools purchase technology necessary for new student assessments?

Cerf’s departure has inspired foes of his education reform agenda to lobby for a new commissioner more amenable to the status quo. Opposition to certain Cerf-driven reforms is growing, or at least growing louder. Of great concern are those rigorous PARCC tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards that will measure student progress and teacher effectiveness. Predictably, then, here’s NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer’s statement after Cerf’s resignation:

“It’s time for a new start and a new approach in New Jersey.  We strongly urge that the next commissioner of education have a deep background in public education, including significant classroom teaching experience. We look forward to working with the next Commissioner to slow down the DOE’s headlong rush toward a disastrous implementation of the new evaluation system and the standardized testing associated with it.  We call on the next Commissioner to focus on doing things right rather than doing them quickly, and to listen to the voices of educators and parents when making decisions that directly affect the quality of education New Jersey’s students receive.”

Steinhaurer, a smart and eloquent spokesman for the teachers’ union, advises Gov. Christie to nominate a candidate who shares NJEA’s distrust of data-driven teacher evaluations and quickly-executed reforms. Continuing Cerf’s rash rate of change risks a “headlong rush towards a disastrous implementation” of new teaching evaluations and student assessments. Governor, says NJEA’s president, you are about to meet your Waterloo. Tread carefully.

What are the odds that Christie and his shrinking portfolio of political stock will appoint a Commissioner with less reform mojo than Cerf? Hard to say; Christie-world is currently unpredictable and Steinhauer serves NJEA well. To get us started, here’s a short list of potential candidates in alphabetical order:

Andres Alonso: most recently the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, Alonso was on a very short list for New York City Schools Chancellor under newly-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio. (De Blasio ended up picking Carmen Farina, a far more conservative choice and the kind of candidate NJEA leadership admires.) A school board member from Baltimore writes that Alonso has two mantras: “If things were under control, they weren’t moving fast enough” and “It’s about the kids, not the adults.”

Rochelle Hendricks: after Christie’s first Commissioner Bret Schundler was fired for allegedly screwing up our Race to the Top application, Christie appointed Hendricks as Interim Commissioner and called her “”one of the jewels of my administration.” She’s been given lots of dirty work: cracking down on superintendent salary caps and following Christie’s order to refuse an speaking invitation from NJEA. Everyone likes her and she’s been on the short list before.

David Hespe: heck, he’s always on the list. Hespe’s already served as NJ Commissioner of Education (under the Whitman Administration), briefly served as Superintendent of Willingboro Public Schools, a troubled school district in Burlington County, and is currently President of Burlington County College. He was also Cerf’s first Chief of Staff and could hit the ground running.

Brian Osbourne: Superintendent of South Orange-Maplewood and indefatigable tweeter, Osbourne is regarded, along with Zychowski (see below), as one of NJ’s finest superintendents. He served as Chair of DOE’s Teacher Evaluation Pilot Advisory Committee and wrote a much-admired editorial in the New York Times describing the burdens of Christie’s state aid cuts on local school districts.

Peter Shulman: currently NJ Department of Education “Chief Talent Officer” and Assistant Commissioner, he previously worked for the Delaware DOE on teacher effectiveness initiatives and helped the state win big in Race to the Top, the federal education reform competition.

Brian Zychowski: North Brunswick’s Superintendent and frequent Statehouse visitor, Zychowski chaired Christie’s Education Effectiveness Task Force and has been on short lists before for Commissioner. He’s also made some nuanced comments about the strengths and shortcomings of value-added teacher evaluations, which may make him more palatable to the anti-reform contingent. Plus or minus: he lives in Mendham, Christie’s town of residence.


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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