September 16, 2009
You can say a lot of things about Chris Cerf, the top Klein deputy who’s now joining the Bloomberg campaign. He’s passionate and fearlessly blunt about his view for how to improve schools. He can also be jolly and pragmatic, managing despite his tough talk on teachers unions to craft a solid working relationship with Randi Weingarten. But for someone who falls squarely on one side of a bitterly divided education world, this line just doesn’t make sense:
Mr. Cerf, a widely admired figure in the education world,
Which education world, New York Times?
The first thing we can learn from this piece of news is that Bloomberg definitely means to continue trying to shape the education world into the one Cerf supports. But whether Cerf will really be capable of doing what the Bloomberg campaign seems to expect him to do — deliver the charter school parent vote — is a wide open question.
Organizing public school parents is hard for anyone, and Cerf has struggled just as much as everyone else who ever tried. Indeed, some of his efforts epitomize the awkward desire of the white, Ivy League-educated “reformer” to reach out to the poor, minority communities their efforts seek to help.
Cerf was a mastermind behind Klein’s first big political push, the Education Equality Project, whose approach to grassroots mobilization included working closely with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who agreed after receiving a large donation to his nonprofit. Despite the partnership, turnout to a trumpeted EEP rally in D.C. was disappointing, and EEP has not thrown any followup rallies since.
Allies of Cerf’s former employer, the for-profit education turnaround company Edison Schools, also turned to Sharpton in 2003, seeking his support for their effort to take control of five struggling New York City schools. But the effort didn’t work, and the schools were never privatized.
Still, there are some reasons for the Bloomberg campaign to think Cerf could help them. He is seen as the mastermind behind a parent outreach push to renew mayoral control, which in turn is seen as a success. It was Cerf who hired Peter Hatch, the director of the group Learn NY, which managed to persuade a long list of community groups to sign onto its platform, getting parents to show up at rallies and take a bus to Albany.
Of course, it was Hatch, not Cerf, who led the group, and city contracts with many groups on the Learn NY list no doubt helped. Also, it’s far from clear that Learn NY really delivered a stirring in the streets. At rallies I attended, Learn NY parents always appeared slightly bored.
Charter school parents in particular are what the campaign seems to want Cerf to organize, and that might be an easier audience. The pro-mayoral control effort, for instance, was boosted by charter school parents, who often seemed much more energetic in their sign-holding than Learn NY parents. But whether Bloomberg can count on charter school parents to turn out for his campaign with as much energy is an open question.
“I think that the mayor has really taken the charter school community for granted,” Joe Williams, the executive director of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, just told me on the phone. Williams, whose group fights on the state and federal level for policies friendly to charter schools, said that the mayor cut charter school funding from his capital plan, declined to help charter supporters fight a state cut in funding to the schools, and has not supported charter school leaders in their gruesome fights over school space.
Parents, he said, are paying attention. “They’ve watched as their school leaders have gotten the shit kicked out of them, trying to get space for their public schools in public buildings,” Williams said. “It’s the kind of thing, if the mayor was leading on it, the mayor would be able to take all the hits. But he’s let the charter school leaders dangle out there, taking all the hits.”
Cerf, talking to me from his new desk at Bloomberg’s campaign headquarters, wouldn’t get into specifics about his new role, except to say that he had taken the job because he thinks keeping the mayor in office is important for public education. “I really do believe that what has happened in New York is incredibly important and powerful and has been more effective than any urban reform ever that I can think of,” he said.
“It should be an interesting 50 days,” he said of his new job. “That’s when the election is. Actually, 48 days, 9 hours, 39 minutes, and 22 seconds. There’s a little time clock here.”