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Two Schools of Thought on a State Commissioner's Authority

One theme that I was not able to work into my Aug. 15 story on New Jersey's NCLB waiver plan is the state Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf's authority as the state implements new policies.

It's relatively easy to find education policy observers and participants alike who say that governors and state superintendents have been more proactive on education policy in the past few years, especially after being spurred by federal initiatives like Race to the Top. State legislators don't get mentioned as often when that trend is discussed, despite the active role of ALEC and other advocacy groups in state capitals.

But in addition to the debates over the proposals championed by Cerf, there's also discussion in New Jersey over just how much the commissioner can accomplish on his own, said Tom Dunn, the director of legislative affairs for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. The state education community has split into two camps on that question, he said. One group believes that Cerf, who was just confirmed last month after serving several months as acting commissioner, has pretty broad regulatory authority to push his goals and implement the policies he believes are best for New Jersey, Dunn said. But there's another group that believes state lawmakers will have to take a more active role and pass legislation to pave the way for at least some of what Cerf wants.

For example, Dunn noted, state officials have discussed in a general way the creation of a state-administered Achievement School District for schools with difficulties, similar to what's been created in Louisiana and Tennessee. Unlike the Regional Achievement Centers I discussed in my story, such a district would appear to require legislative approval, Dunn said (something the New Jersey department acknowledges). How much opposition will Cerf run into if he pushes for initiatives like this?

In a related point, Dunn mentioned something else you'll hear frequently if you talk to policy folks: The New Jersey education department is moving away from ensuring compliance with various regulations, and instead getting into the "nitty gritty" of actually helping schools.

"New Jersey I think is moving as quickly as anybody else," Dunn said.

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