Taking on New Jersey: A Conversation with Chris Cerf
Meyer, Peter, Education Next
I didn't know what exit we were passing, but Christopher Cerf, the six-foot New Jersey commissioner of education, curled yogi-like in the back seat of a small state-issued Chevy Impala, didn't seem to be paying attention to the 18-wheelers roaring by as we flew along the New Jersey Turnpike. "I've worked for a president, and I've worked for a mayor, and IVe worked for a governor, and the mayor ran a city as big as most states," he was saying, "What draws me to this work is the same thing that draws me, I have to say, to wilderness canoeing. When you go to the head of a rapid and you're trying to go downstream--it's the rocks that make it fun."
This is a guy who has an astute appreciation for the challenges of education reform, and relishes them. In fact, the 57-year-old Cerf has been an avid wilderness camper since leading student canoeing expeditions near Hudson Bay in the 1970s. The tall, athletic, gray-suited father of three was appointed Chris Christie's education czar for New Jersey in January 2011 and now oversees the Garden State's 2,500 public schools, IA million students, and 110,000 teachers in more than 600 school districts. New Jersey's is a complex and troubled public school system: although the state ranks in the top 5 on most nationally normed tests (NAEP, SAT, ACT), it has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country--50th out of 51 in 8th-grade reading, for example. The mandate from Christie was to close it. And Cerf, fresh from a stint as a deputy chancellor for Joel Klein in New York City, has a rather straightforward plan. As he says, "Rather than working to change the organization, you shut the old organization down and transfer relevant parts into the new organization that you're building and that's exactly what we're doing,"
The drive from Trenton to Newark was the third part of an interview that began in downtown Newark several days earlier, in a large, bare office that looks out over Jersey's troubled largest city. Cerf uses it as a transit station, a temporary office while on his way to or from meetings in the state's more populated eastern counties, his home in a northern suburb, or across the Hudson in New York City. I had caught up with him for part two of our interview in his official Trenton office, 50 miles to the south and west, where the state's education department is headquartered and where he has lively paintings drawn by schoolchildren on the walls.
A lawyer who has argued two cases before the Supreme Court and served as a White House counsel in Bill Clinton's first term, Cerf exhibits an appreciation of big ideas and broad trends as he explains the road forward. "I say straight out that there are many, many interests at work in public education," he explains. "There are the interests of children, of course, which everyone talks about. There are the interests of employees, who have a perfectly legitimate set of interests to guard against arbitrariness and get as much economic benefit out of their work as is possible. There are commercial interests, like vendors and publishers.... The 600 districts in New Jersey have their interests as well: in expanding their power, their authority, their institutional permanence. ... But the great myth of public education is that the Venn diagram of those interests is perfectly intersecting. There are areas of substantial overlap, but many areas do not. I represent the interests of the children of New Jersey, pure and simple. When there is a conflict between interests, and you would be amazed at how many issues come my way where you actually have to make a call between one interest and the other, I'm with the children. And I make that clear."
Anyone who has dipped his or her toe in the waters of school reform knows the hazards, the rocks, of siding with the children. And Cerf did not live through the Klein years without suffering the slings and arrows of unions and their friends. …