Chris Cerf, There You Go Again!

I have held off blogging about Cerf, but I am now impelled to clarify the deep flaws in his record as a DOE administrator.
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This morning featured an extended story in the New Jersey Star Ledger examining Chris Cerf, and his record as deputy chancellor of NYC schools. Cerf has been appointed acting New Jersey commissioner of education by Gov. Christie, and is intent on implementing many of the same divisive policies that have been tried and failed in New York City, including charter school co-locations and expansion, and teacher merit pay, linked to unreliable test scores.

He is also now embroiled in the same sort of conflict of interest charges and allegations of dishonesty that marred his time in NYC. As Bob Braun of the Star Ledger wrote,

"Newark residents want reform but they also want a say -- all parents do. When decisions about their children are made behind closed doors by billionaires who believe they know what's best for them, they have a right to be concerned. They also have a right to rely on the law."

As a result, a prominent NJ State Senator, Ron Rice, says he will block Cerf's nomination:

"Acting Commissioner Cerf prevaricates. He doesn't tell all truths... He may be here now, but he can't stay forever, and he will not be permanent at this point. The governor will have to find someone else."

In today's article, Cerf said that "while he has found the negative publicity bruising and 'profoundly unfair,'" he has no plans to step down, describing his motivation to reform education as something "spiritual."

Despite this "spiritual" calling, he used the occasion of this article to viciously attack Tim Johnson, NYC public school parent and former head of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council [CPAC].

"In an e-mail, [Cerf] called him [Johnson] a 'pathetic, two-bit player' and a 'stooge' for the United Federation of Teachers."

Anyone who knows Tim realizes he is fiercely independent, and that Cerf's attack is ludicrous.

In 2007, Tim had the nerve to question Cerf about whether he still held Edison stock -- something that apparently Tim was the only person in NYC with the temerity to do.

I have held off blogging about Cerf, but I am now impelled to clarify the deep flaws in his record as a DOE administrator.

A little background: Cerf was originally employed by Edison Schools, a for-profit charter management chain, between May 1997 until April 2005, rising to become the President and COO of the company. Though in many cases they used pressure tactics to charge districts more than average per pupil funding for their services, Edison utterly failed to make a profit or to create effective schools.

The company was eventually saved from bankruptcy when it was taken private in 2003, in a buyout by a private company called Liberty Partners, a deal facilitated by Jeb Bush, who as Governor of Florida, invested billions of the state teacher's pension fund in the company at the same time.

Cerf officially resigned from Edison's board of directors in October 2006, though he had already apparently been acting for several months as a consultant to DOE, which had substantial contracts with Edison for their supplemental tutoring services -- amounting to more than $9.6 million in the 2005-6 school year. (Such obvious conflicts of interest never seemed to bother Joel Klein, which is worrisome, especially given that Klein is now heading Rupert Murdoch's online learning ventures at the same time that the DOE is intent on spending millions on expanding these programs.)

Cerf was hired by Klein as deputy chancellor in December 2006. In February 2007, I was in the room when he was asked by Tim at a CPAC meeting whether he owned Edison stocks. Cerf vociferously denied that he did, without revealing that he had just divested himself that morning, after learning that he would be asked this question. Here is the account as reported in the New York Times:

Asked by Tim Johnson, the group's chairman, to describe his financial interest in Edison Schools, he replied, "I'd be delighted to do that," adding: "I have no financial interest in Edison of any kind. Zero."

When Mr. Johnson persisted, asking, "Can we ask when you divested yourself of Edison stock?" Mr. Cerf said he would be "delighted" to give Mr. Johnson a copy of financial disclosure forms he said he was required to file as a public employee. "That will answer all of your questions, and that's what I'm prepared to say today," he added.

These stocks were at the time more or less worthless, because of the company's poor financial performance, though they could potentially be worth from $1.1 million to $6.7 million, according to filings Edison had made with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Over the next few days, I, along with several others, asked the special investigator for schools, Richard Condon, to investigate the legality of Cerf having held onto these stocks. Though Condon's report was completed in August 2007, it was not publicly released until I FOILed more than a year later, in December of 2008. When I saw what it included, I immediately gave it to Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News; someone else leaked it to the New York Times at the same time.

Though it was heavily redacted, the report revealed that Cerf had violated city conflict-of-interest laws by soliciting a $60,000 contribution for the Darrow Foundation, on whose board he sat, from Edison officials at the same time that he divested himself of their stock:

"At 7:37 am, prior to the scheduled CPAC meeting, Cerf sent an email to [redacted] of Edison, stating, 'Per this email, I irrevocably release you and any interests with which you are associated from any and all obligations arising under the document executed on or about the date of my departure.' As with his earlier messages to the Liberty and Edison executives, Cerf asked [redacted] to consider a contribution to the Darrow Foundation."

Cerf later took back the request for a donation when asked about it by the Special Investigator's office. After investigators questioned him about its propriety, Cerf sent an email to the Edison executives saying: "I have now concluded that it would be the better course not to proceed with the contribution."

Subsequently, the NYC Conflict of Interest Board sent him a confidential letter, admonishing him for using his city position to benefit the charity:

"It appears that you were aware that Edison Schools was likely to come before the DOE and/or to be affected by your official actions on behalf of DOE," the letter stated. The board recommended no further disciplinary action but reminded Cerf that such violations "can result in civil fines of up to $10,000... and other penalties."

The Special investigator also found that Cerf had relinquished an ongoing ten-year consulting contract with another Edison-connected firm only at the same time as he gave up the stocks, a contract that could have been worth $2.5 million.

Though Cerf claimed that the contract was not "operational" since he never signed it, the question remains why the word "Accepted" was written over his name on the document, and why he felt compelled to hurriedly renounce the agreement in the same email exchange in which he divested himself of Edison stock.

The Special Investigator's report also pointed out there were mistakes and omissions in Cerf's official financial disclosure forms that appeared to relate to ongoing class action lawsuits against Edison. He was subsequently allowed to amend these forms, though such omissions can also result in termination of employment and criminal prosecution.

See Juan Gonzalez' column about these matters, as well as the New York Times story here. Our NYC parent blog has links to the FOILed report, as does GothamSchools here, which described it as "the investigation into a top school official that you will never read" because so many pages were crossed out.

All this differs considerably from Cerf's own account of the SCI investigation at the time:

"There is nothing here other than an investigation that exonerated me. The only real story here is that I was put through a rather tortuous experience."

What did Cerf learn from this experience? Evidently very little, considering how he has since been entangled in a similar controversy, involving misstatements concerning a secret, leaked report from his consulting company, which advised the takeover and charter conversion of many Newark public schools.

Cerf's time in NYC featured other controversies. In October 2007, it was revealed that he had assigned an employee of the DOE press office to tape Diane Ravitch at public events, and was keeping a dossier on her. After failing to interest any reporter in writing about her alleged contradictions, he got Kathryn Wilde, head of the NYC Partnership, to publish a New York Post op-ed attacking her.

Later, when asked by Patrick Sullivan of the Panel for Educational Policy about this "Soviet-era approach to stifling dissent," Cerf responded that it was totally "appropriate" to spend public funds taping Diane, and to prepare a document tracking her positions.

Nevertheless, the conservative National Review described Cerf's smear tactics this way: "Welcome to Moscow or Berlin circa 1935."

Kenneth Bernstein of the liberal Daily Kos wrote,

"There is something seriously wrong with people unwilling to hear criticism. Actions to suppress criticism imply to me an insecurity or worse a recognition that the positions being criticized cannot truly be defended..."

Again, Cerf was not discouraged by the widespread criticism of his Nixonian-like tactics. In July 2008, it was revealed that he had assigned several members of his still-growing press office to monitor other potential critics, by subscribing to our NYC education listserv, in an effort called the "Truth Squad."

And that is not all. As a DOE consultant, Cerf devised a cockamamie plan to reorganize the NYC school system, and give private companies the responsibility to offer support services for schools, replacing the district superintendents, whose role had been specifically retained in state governance law.

At that time, Joel Klein claimed that he could not legally exclude for-profit companies like Edison from bidding for the work -- a claim that, after considerable protests, he renounced, though non-profits were still allowed by Klein to support schools, in so-called "Partnership support organizations," run by private groups like New Visions, etc.

Cerf also devised a new bizarre management structure, in which district superintendents were appointed "Senior Achievement facilitators" and required to spend 90% of their time on the road, coaching schools outside their districts on how to analyze and improve test scores.

This proposal even more clearly violated two consent decrees, in which DOE had promised to retain the customary support and supervisory role of district superintendents, after state legislators sued them for breaking the law. (See Patrick Sullivan's questioning of Cerf on this issue as well at a December 2007 PEP meeting).

What else? Cerf consistently failed to investigate principals who were accused of tampering with test scores. When yet another such scandal broke, Cerf, who by that time was working for the Bloomberg campaign, said this:

"We cannot comment on any aspects of this, but we certainly do not condone the kinds of things that are alleged. But at the same time, we believe that accountability for student outcomes is a central driver of positive reform and we believe it is critical to hold everybody in the system accountable for student results."

The implicit message to principals: lie, cheat or steal, it hardly matters as long as test scores go up.

Cerf also claimed that the reason that class size had increased sharply in NYC schools under his watch, despite a state law mandating their reduction, was that principals did not regard this reform as important. Yet in a citywide survey of over 500 principals, co-sponsored by the New York City Council, 87% of principals responded that they were unable to provide a quality education because of excessive class sizes.

Cerf was in charge of commissioning the teacher data reports, and promised that these reports would not be used for teacher evaluations and that the DOE would fight against any effort to disclose them publicly.

In an October 1, 2008 letter to Randi Weingarten, Cerf wrote, "It is the DOE's firm position and expectation that Teacher Data reports will not and should not be disclosed or shared outside of the school community."

Both promises have been broken, with the DOE basing tenure on these highly flawed reports, as recounted in a recent Michael Winerip column in the New York Times, and pushing for the release of these reports in the press.

Clearly, the man cannot be trusted; and Cerf's persistent proclivity towards prevarication, political smear campaigns, and the privatization of public schools shows that he is not fit to run New Jersey's education system

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