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Est. April 5, 2002
October 08, 2015 - Issue 624

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Black Mass
Christopher Cerf’s
Educational Violence Against
New Jersey’s Public Schools
Part I

"Cerf also developed a portfolio management
 model which he designed to place traditional
public schools, voucher schools, and
charter schools on equal footing."

Last weekend, I went to see Black Mass, the movie about Boston’s 20th century crime boss, James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, a vicious, charming “hit man” who, with the FBI’s assistance and that of his brother, William “Billy” Bulger, President of the Massachusetts State Senate and one of the most powerful politicians in the state, wrested control of the Boston crime organization. Bulger was an original gangster who took no prisoners and shaped Boston’s crime syndicate in his own image. When his criminal operation fell apart, Bulger stayed on the run for nearly 20 years, again with the support of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. His gangster legacy is still visible in Boston’s neighborhoods and institutions as he serves two life sentences.

Likewise, Christopher Cerf, an education gangster, has enjoyed a similar relationship with a Cartel of the nation’s most powerful corporate and financial leaders, foundation heads, and elected officials. Sent to New Jersey by the Cartel in 2011 to serve as Commissioner of Education for Gov. Chris Christie, a Cartel devotee, Cerf was assigned to dismantle and privatize public education so that Cartel members could use it as a profit center. Although no shots were fired, he engaged in aggressive and malicious education violence by using his policy-making authority to advocate and push for: the underfunding of public schools, the rapid expansion of charters and the establishment of virtual charters, the lay-offs and/or terminations of thousands of teachers, the privatization of school services and education support personnel, the strong-arming of local school districts to give multi-million dollar contracts to members of the Cartel, and the hiring of large numbers of alternatively-trained Teach for America (TFA) teachers, whose educational preparation was limited to five weeks of training in a summer boot camp before being unleashed on classrooms in low-wealth, primarily urban schools.

Cerf also developed a portfolio management model which he designed to place traditional public schools, voucher schools, and charter schools on equal footing. After his privatization initiatives escalated tensions between public education stakeholders and private-sector education reformers, the Cartel reassigned him to serve as CEO of Amplify, an education privatization company which creates K-12 digital educational products. When multi-media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, a Cartel member and owner of Amplify, sold the company, he dispatched Cerf back to New Jersey to replace Cami Anderson after her rancorous departure as superintendent of the Newark Public Schools. Gov. Christie also re-installed Cerf as his de facto education commissioner, reducing David Hespe, who is currently in the job, to a figurehead. Hespe, who is not a Cartel disciple, could not be trusted to carry out its agenda with the required obeisance and commitment to raping and pillaging public education.

Cerf was resistant to returning to New Jersey, the scene of his educational crimes, but the Cartel was insistent that he finish transforming the Newark Public Schools to a charter district (since he had primarily masterminded the process), that he complete the chartering of the Camden Public Schools, and that he revive the public school privatization movement in the rest of the state as school districts and communities were becoming more resistant. Upon Cerf’s return, since he had left under a cloud of dissension, he reinvented his persona, publicly denouncing most of Cami Anderson’s reforms that he had previously backed and reaching out to her antagonists. First, he made a call on State Senator Ron Rice who had led a legislative movement to oust Anderson, had opposed Cerf’s earlier appointment as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner, and had lobbied against his return as Newark’s superintendent.

Second, Cerf directed the Newark Public Schools’ business administrator to reach out to Daryn Martin, president of Newark’s Ivy Hill Elementary School Parents’ Association, who Anderson charged with assault when he protested Ivy Hill’s closing, to reach a settlement of the case. Relying on the stereotype of African American males, Anderson had expected that Martin would have a prior criminal record which would have made him appear dangerous and easy to smear in the print and broadcast media. Martin, whose background was pristine, retained a top flight social justice lawyer, Robert Pickett, who took Newark Public Schools to court, had Martin exonerated, and sued the district for punitive damages.

Third, Cerf set up a meeting with Newark’s African American clergy to moderate their resistance to his return, and he met with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to continue his goodwill tour. Like Whitey Bulger, Cerf used muscle and charm to advance his plan for public school privatization—beating down districts and teachers and holding feel good sessions with parents and community leaders. At the same time, he is quietly converting the Avon Avenue Elementary School to a charter. Staffed with a Teach for America (TFA) principal and a majority of TFA teachers, Cerf has a willing constituency that is aligned with the charter philosophy. In addition, Avon’s slick marketing campaign to parents and the broader Newark community has positioned the school for quick approval for charter status by the state board of education.

Furthermore, Cerf now claims to support the return of Newark’s schools to local control although he opposed that move when he served as Commissioner of Education from 2011 to 2014 (despite Newark having met all the criteria). Gov. Christie and Mayor Baraka set up the Newark Education Success Board, a panel of community members and educational experts, to execute this option and report back in a year. Christie used this strategy to keep the Newark education crisis from derailing his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Yet he appointed five members of the nine member group, most of whom have financially benefitted from contracts with the Newark Public Schools. If and when this transition occurs, Newark’s traditional public schools will likely be less than 30 percent of the number they were when they were taken over two decades ago.

Meanwhile, numerous Newark teachers are still facing tenure charges, schools continue to be under-funded, and the joint public and charter student enrollment system is steering students toward charter schools. Cerf’s educational violence persists as he has not abandoned his gangster ways. Next his national linkages to other education reform gangsters who are dismantling public schools will be explored.

Read Part 2 Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has appeared on the Today Show with Matt Lauer and National Public Radio’s The Connection to discuss public school privatization, and he has lectured to parent, teacher, and union groups throughout the nation. Contact Dr. Farrell. 

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