Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cerf Invites Edison Learning Crony To Open "Cluster" Of Charters In Paterson With No Public Input

The Paterson public school district has been under state control for 21 years, and elected officials are saying enough is enough.  But state control suits NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf just fine.

After all, if he isn't in complete control of the district, how can he hand out charter schools to his buddies?

I have been following and writing about the Paterson Collegiate Academy Charter School Application for some time now, because as soon as I saw Steven Wilson I knew he was the kind of charter operator that would make Cerf go weak at the knees. Wilson came out of Edison Learning, just like Christie, Cerf and Evo Popoff (Cerf's new Chief Innovation Officer overseeing the Office of Charter Schools) but all I could do was speculate that these guys knew each other.

If you follow this blog at all, you know I am a big fan of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and regularly submit OPRA requests which reveal all kinds of interesting information. So the thought occurred to me to OPRA emails between Wilson and Cerf or any other employee of the NJDOE.  

Turns out not only was I right, but Wilson and Cerf are chummy enough that Wilson emailed Cerf back in July 2012, three months before he submitted his application to the state, and the email went to Cerf's personal email address, not his public DOE address.  Clearly they know each other pretty darn well.

But what even I couldn't have imagined was that Cerf actually told Wilson he would "love" it if he would open schools in NJ.


After Wilson met with Cerf, but still before the October 15th application deadline, Popoff dropped Wilson an email to set up a phone call.  Clearly these guys knew each other, too.  And clearly Wilson was being pursued.  He was the belle of the ball.

You have to wonder, why bother with the artifice of having unconnected founders submit applications? Seems that if you know the Commissioner and his Chief Innovation Officer you not only get wooed to open a charter school, you get cash money to boot!  Wilson was the only applicant to receive a $150,000 planning year grant.

I checked with the OPRA custodian to see if this grant award had been "determined" yet, and sure enough, Wilson was the only one awarded the funds.

Notice in Wilson's original email to Cerf he says he's "working on more schools, building capacity, thinking about raising money (I think we're well positioned)..."  Wilson is crystal clear with Cerf that he is already "well positioned" to raise money on his own, yet the NJDOE feels the need to throw cash at him anyway.

What's most frightening to me is that Wilson says his plan is to open a "cluster" of charters in Paterson. Paterson is home to 33 elementary schools, and four elementary academies.  Lots of room for Wilson to grab some market share, especially with Cerf and Popoff in his back pocket.

And let's not forget.  The people of Paterson knew NOTHING about this application until after it had been approved. This is being done TO the people of Paterson, not WITH them. And not for nothing, Wilson isn't allowed to operate like this in NYC. There he HAS to notify the public. Wilson is currently applying to open new charters in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sunset Park and Flatbush.  
“We actively invite parents and community leaders to submit comments regarding our intent to establish new schools in Flatbush and Sunset Park,” said Steven F. Wilson, president of Ascend Learning. To submit comments about Flatbush Ascend Charter School, interested parties should email Comments about Sunset Park Ascend Charter School should be emailed
Why is this not a part of the process in NJ? How does Cerf get away with approving charters without community input time and time again?

Here's what needs to happen. 

The NJDOE needs to release every single document related to how Wilson's charter and grant applications were reviewed, as well as every other application in those application rounds. This is the only way the NJDOE can demonstrate that Wilson was not given a charter school and a $150,000 grant just because he knows Cerf and Popoff. We also need to know who reviewed those applications, how the reviewers were selected, and how the ratings impacted Cerf's final decisions.  

Cerf must not be allowed to award a "cluster" of charters in Paterson to his Edison Learning buddy, just as the good people of Paterson and their elected officials struggle to get out from under 21 years of unsuccessful state control. Why should they be subjected to more failed state policies, and why should they have no say in the future of their district? If Wilson gets a foothold in Paterson now, much needed funds will be drained from the Paterson budget just as the district is trying to reestablish local control.

Cerf's learned he can't get away with these shenanigans in suburban districts, and he and Christie have completely backed away from approving charter schools in "high performing" districts.  Help me send this administration a message that they can't get away with it in Paterson either.

This administration refuses to give urban school districts a seat at the table when charter decisions are made. Paterson may just be poised to change that. 


  1. This is extraordinary writing and research. It is a shame that the press isn't doing this. It is also a shame that we in Paterson are coming so late to the table. Consequently, we are definitely on the menu.

  2. There's zero scandal here. Commissioner Cerf has always said that he supports good school operators opening/running high quality schools in New Jersey:

    You're insinuating something improper is happening here, and the conversation seems 100% proper. Ascend would need to go through the same application process as everyone else.

    Paterson has some of the lowest performing schools in the state. I'm glad that the commissioner is working to bring more high performing schools to NJ's neediest communities.

  3. Dear Anonymous,
    In that same op-ed you cite Cerf also said that Albert Shanker supported charters, and while this was true early on, Shanker was very clear that he would have been opposed to what Cerf is doing in places like Paterson for many, many reason. You should read all of Diane Ravitch's thoughts on the subject, but here are a couple highlights to inform our dialogue:

    3. Shanker wanted charters to collaborate, not compete, with existing public schools. He proposed them as a way to solve the problems of public schools. Whatever they learned, he said, should be shared with the public schools that sponsored them.

    4. MOST IMPORTANT: In 1993, when Shanker saw that the charter idea was going to be used to privatize public education, he turned against charter schools. He opposed the takeover of the charter idea by corporations, entrepreneurs, and for-profit vendors. He became a vocal opponent of charter schools when he realized that his idea was embraced by “the education industry.” In his weekly column in The New York Times, Albert Shanker repeatedly denounced charter schools, vouchers, and for-profit management as “quick fixes that won’t fix anything.”

    So I disagree with you. There is a HUGE scandal here. Cerf thinks he has the authority and the right to impose his will on districts. He tried to do it in my district too, and it isn't "needy." Just because a community has needs doesn't mean it should be subjected to cronyism and privatization and be stripped of all decision making capability.

    Ascend got a free ride through the process, and our federal tax dollars are paying for it. The application process would appear to be a sham, and if I'm wrong, the best way to PROVE me wrong is to release all of the review documents.

    Back to you...

  4. @Anonymous (Why not say who you are?) Your silence is deafening. A reasoned response to Darcie seems to be in order. You also cite Paterson schools' struggles, but you do realize that district has been under state control for decades, right?

  5. The never ending saga.

  6. Someone needs to do deep research on Central Jersey Arts Charter School in Plainfield. This charter school has been in existence for about 8 years now and has been below proficient every year, yet no one even mentions it.

    Check out the history of the Renaissance School Services (RSS( -- (Google - Edison, Cerf, Renaissance School Services). Go far back to find out the connections.

    Then look at when RSS was given the OK to "turnaround" CJACS -- almost 4 years ago -- and the school still is doing way below proficiency.

    Look at who began the school and what happened to the Board.

    This is one of the most interesting NJ charter school stories (scandals?) in the history of NJ charter schools -- yet not one reporter or government official has investigated it.