TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey’s Education Department received a makeover on Wednesday aimed at making it less of a regulatory agency while putting in place Gov. Chris Christie’s goal of successfully teaching and graduating children from all walks of life.

The state Board of Education unanimously approved the reorganization requested by Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, and approved appointments to several key jobs in the new structure.

Cerf said the department as it was previously organized was geared too much toward ensuring school districts comply with rules and not enough to the most important job of the department, which he defined as “to graduate all of New Jersey’s children, regardless of their birth circumstances, their zip code, their level of need, to graduate them college- and career-ready.”

Under the new structure, the department has four main divisions: one that identifies and measures goals; another to recruit, develop and retain teachers and administrators; one to ensure the state’s standardized tests are meaningful; and a fourth that oversees charter schools and other programs. That division will be led by an “innovation officer.”

Cerf said a deputy commissioner will be in charge of making sure the work of the new divisions reaches school district officials.

“None of this matters if it doesn’t affect what happens within schools,” he said.

Cerf also said one of the key figures in the new arrangement will be David Hespe. Hespe was education commissioner from 1999 to 2001 and is now Cerf’s chief of staff.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, an umbrella group of most of the state’s teachers unions, said it’s the acting commissioner’s prerogative to shuffle the organization. That doesn’t bother the group, he said, so much as the administration’s education proposals.

“It’s not what the department heads are called. It’s what the end product is that comes out,” he said.

Christie has become a national figure in education, leading a state that ranks among the top in standardized test scores, graduation rates and other measures. But low-income urban districts still fall far short despite huge subsidies from the state.

Christie has been pushing for changes supported by many education advocates both Democratic and Republican, but opposed in many instances by the New Jersey Education Association. The governor favors using scholarships funded by corporate contributions in exchange for tax breaks that would allow students in some cities to attend private schools. He wants the state to expand the number of publicly funded charter schools, and find ways to more easily identify good teachers and fire low-performing ones.

Most of the measures would need approval from the state’s Democrat-controlled Legislature, which has been reluctant to bring many of them to votes.
The state board Wednesday approved a measure that would not need legislative approval. It would allow struggling districts to hire superintendents without backgrounds in education. School districts in other states have adopted this practice with the idea of finding a strong organizer with business experience. Other school officials would be in charge of the academic program.

The board heard from an official with the National Council on Teacher Quality, which has found teacher quality standards lacking in New Jersey and many other states.

Cerf said some of the group’s concerns can be addressed without the Legislature’s involvement.

“It is absolutely our intention as a commission to see what we can do at the regulatory level without the need for legislation,” he said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved)

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