New York

Chris Cerf and the charter school parent vote

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.

Cerf was the no. 2 adviser to Joel Klein at Tweed Courthouse.
Cerf was the no. 2 adviser to Joel Klein at Tweed Courthouse.

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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”