New Jersey

Next Steps in Newark: An Interview With Superintendent Chris Cerf

Newark Public Schools Superintendent Chris Cerf recently conducted a phone interview to discuss ongoing efforts to improve education in New Jersey's largest city. This is the first of a two-part series focusing on local control, district-charter collaboration and parent engagement. The second part will focus on "The Prize," Dale Russakoff's recently published book on school reform in Newark over the past five years. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length. Peter: You started your job with a promise to restore local control in Newark. What do you need to see before you are really comfortable advancing that? Chris Cerf: Well, we are committed to returning the district to local control, and there is a process that is well underway to develop a plan by the end of this school year that would include milestones and benchmarks. It is ultimately about making sure that the transition occurs in a context where there is capacity, where there is a set of strategic objectives and associated organizational structure that would assure that children continue to make academic progress. It starts with a core value shared by every elected official, civic leader, educator, parent and constituent in the city: The definition of success for a public school system is that every child is on a path to be launched into adulthood prepared for success, whether through college or a career. My experience is that people take their eye off that ball a great deal in this field. Other interests compete with that value—for example, for jobs, or for power, or for the distribution of contracts, or in the rights of employees. The first mission right now is to make sure that everybody agrees to test every policy proposition and how we spend our dollars against the core value of helping students achieve. Secondly, this is a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise with massive executional challenges and needs: a great instructor in every classroom, an effective special education program, rigorous curriculum for all students, high expectations, data that is available to teachers in real time so they can adjust their instruction in a differentiated fashion. Those are all things that are easy to put on a PowerPoint but require deep organizational systems and capacity to execute. Peter: The narrative on Newark is that Mayor Baraka and the unions have one set of priorities, and your team, you and your predecessor, had a different set. How accurate is that? How far apart really are the mayor, the union and you in terms of priorities? Chris Cerf: Well, I have a great deal of respect for him. I believe that he is deeply committed to the same educational values that I am. He is very well aware that, as he builds this city towards increasing levels of greatness, a critical part of that is to assure that every child has a quality education. We also share several policy values. He was a principal, a very successful principal, of a large comprehensive high school. He understands how critical it is to have quality and effective educators, and he also understands that the system is very cumbersome and complicated to navigate to assure that there’s a great teacher in every classroom. He believes, as do I, that we need to develop solutions that more effectively take into account the influences that culture and poverty have on schools. We are in discussion about a community school initiative that would incorporate both the in-school work at a very rigorous level as well as the learnings of the community school movement. Peter: And do you feel like you have a good relationship with the union leadership? Chris Cerf: I am trying very, very hard to have a civil, cordial conversation with the union leadership. Peter: Talk to me a little bit about how you’re balancing the charter growth and the need to improve the district schools. Chris Cerf: This issue has been deeply misunderstood by everybody, proponents and opponents of charter schools. I have a very simple measure here that goes back to where this conversation began. Does every child who lives in Newark have access to a free, quality public education? That does not make me either a proponent or an opponent of charter schools. It makes me an opponent of bad schools and a proponent of good schools. When I say public, I mean a school that is open to all. We’ll give a pass to the magnets, but a school that is open to all—free, does not charge tuition, that is subject to a public authority, that has democratic accountability. That definition includes traditional public schools, vocational schools and charter schools. So, again, I would very much like to get everybody out of the box of public schools versus charters and get everybody focusing on whether it is a great, free, public school, and whether parents have an equal opportunity to access them. Peter: Are charters school and traditional schools truly equal? Chris Cerf: We need to work really hard to level the playing field so our traditional public schools and our charter schools have an equal opportunity to be successful, and there’s a lot of work to do on that front. It is true that the operating budget on a per-pupil basis is higher for traditional public schools than they are for charter schools. It is also true that charter schools receive no public funds for buildings, and that they need to rely on their operating budgets or on philanthropy to meet the needs of acquiring, leasing, renovating or building a school facility. The state has put close to three-quarters of a billion dollars into the construction of new traditional public schools over the last decade or so, but it is also true that traditional public schools are significantly disadvantaged relative to charter schools. They do not have the same freedom and latitude over who works in them, especially teachers. Traditional public schools do not get to pick all of their teachers. Charter school principals have substantially greater discretion over their budget. They have less money, but more discretion over it. So they can make informed choices to focus on more aides, or lower class size, or more computers, or more social workers, or more tutoring. Traditional schools have much less latitude. We have focused very hard on making sure that no school is in a position to choose the students that they will serve by creating a universal enrollment process that basically takes the enrollment process out of the hands of charter schools, as well as magnet schools, to make sure that it is implemented equitably. Schools must take their fair share of children with high needs, for example, and we have to continually police that process to make sure that no games are being played. It’s also necessary to make sure that schools have similar retention policies. Allegations that some schools counsel out or otherwise suspend students and that they end up back in some of our less successful schools...we need to make sure that’s not happening. The point is, if charters do have an advantage, our goal should be to give those same advantages to traditional schools and not to undermine what’s working in some of our charter schools. Peter: Why can’t we take some of those freedoms and try to get them into traditional schools? Chris Cerf: That is a centerpiece of what we’re trying to do. Now, some of it is in our discretion, and some of it is not. We operate under a state law and under various contracts that make it very difficult to give every school the unique authority to hire who they want. We also have budgetary constraints that are challenging, but I agree that should be one of our top priorities, to try to work and change the system so that schools have equal opportunities to be successful. Peter: Finally, frame a response directed at parents about what the future for Newark looks like. Chris Cerf: It is deeply wrong that too many children in this country are not given equal access to a quality public education. That birth circumstances, their parents’ country of origin, their economic status, their zip code determines access to the American dream and determines economic success going forward. My message to parents is they have so much more power over correcting that injustice than they are currently exercising. What I would say though, historically, is that correcting injustice involves change. It involves not all of the interests getting what they want. It involves exerting influence in the electoral process. It involves courage. It involves stamina, and it involves having a very clear north star around the goal of achieving positive results for your kids. There are a lot of forces in this country that are not on the side of those changes, and the best chance we have to achieve that success is if parents become active, not just in the little things. You know, everybody’s appropriately concerned about whether their particular teacher is the right teacher for their child, or whether they get into the school that they want to get into, or whether all of the services promised in an IEP are in fact provided. Those are great things for parents to be concerned about. But the biggest thing to be concerned about is—are we really making sure that all of our schools are well positioned to be successful?
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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