"If [Cerf] lasts three years in this job I'll light my hair on fire."

That’s Tom Moran in yesterday’s Star-Ledger editorial on the story that’s lit up the state and national media, as well as the blogosphere: on Tuesday Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson announced her resignation and N.J. Education Commissioner David Hespe nominated former N.J. Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf as Newark’s interim superintendent.

While much ink has been spilt on Anderson, the story has less to do with her than with Newark’s fight for local control over its 45,000 student school district. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who owes his seat to her (he turned last year’s mayoral election into a referendum on Anderson), conceded as much: "This whole fight over Cami Anderson is really about the state. It's not really even about her," Baraka said. "It's time for the state to go."

Anderson signaled this as well. “Newark Public Schools,” she said in a statement, “are finally in a stable condition and can begin the return to local leadership.”

Anderson leaves Newark with a list of achievements which include carefully expanding public school choice for families,* creating a universal enrollment system (flawed but inspired), elevating expectations for student learning, updating technology, overseeing the district’s successful implementation of PARCC assessments,  and finagling an innovative collective bargaining agreement with the Newark Teachers Union.

At the same time she’s been a divisive figure, painted as something of a dragon-lady: immune to criticism, a hapless communicator, defiantly confining herself within what some underlings called “the Cami bubble.”  So those achievements have gotten lost in a hostile vortex amplified by the city’s aversion to state control, an aversion that runs so deep that it appears to feel like an unfriendly military occupation.

Cerf’s success depends on his ability to render himself superfluous. To do so he must  transform community resentment into collaboration, work with state legislators and other officials to create some sort of transition model to local control (none currently exists), pacify Newark’s increasingly militant teacher union, and, most importantly, protect Newark families’ access to educational opportunities.

But he’s got his work cut out for him. For example, this week the Newark School Advisory Board voted in favor of a resolution supporting an ill-begotten charter moratorium bill sponsored by Assembly members Mila Jasey and Patrick Diegnan. This vote  disenfranchises the large cohort of Newark schoolchildren who attend public charter schools – estimates put next year’s charter enrollment as close to 40% -- as well as another 10,000 children on waiting lists.

(To their credit, the Newark City Council voted against a similar resolution.)

This is new territory for New Jersey. We’ve never returned full local control to any of the four districts ( Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, and Camden) under state stewardship and Newark is probably the toughest case. Newark, after all, is the largest employer in the city with an annual budget that's close to a billion dollars. Examples of corruption and political patronage within the 100-school district fill books, as well as a 1,000 page report from the state, issued in 1994, that declared, "the Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled in public schools.”

Bob Curvin, lifelong Newark resident, professor, civil rights leader, and author of  "Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation," said  in a statement that the state took over the district because authorities found too many problems to ignore.

"The state compliance investigation revealed horrors that in my mind were shameful and manifested a pitiful lack of concern on the part of leaders throughout the system for the children. Anyone who argues that the state takeover had nothing to do with the quality of education in Newark at the time is simply not telling the truth or is intentionally ignorant."

But Cerf knows Newark and its history; he’s the right person for this transitional post. Much will depend on his ability to convince the  School Advisory Board -- which, upon the return of local control, will choose its own superintendent -- to transform itself from an adult-centered, politically-motivated, and  reactive group into a cohesive unit committed to oversight and policy that values the educational achievement of schoolchildren above all else.

*Anderson is hardly the charter school cheerleader often depicted by charter-haters. At a School Choice conference in Jersey City this past winter, she worried about the increasing popularity of this public school sector. She said there, “We don’t want to create awesome speed boats for some, but then the Titanic sinks faster for the others."

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