Tilson says Cerf investigation reflects "madness" of the ed world

In his daily school-reform-report e-mail today, Whitney Tilson, the hedge fund manager by day, education entrepreneur by night, defends Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf, the subject of a 2007 investigation that just came to light last week. The investigation concluded that Cerf had stretched conflict-of-interest lines by soliciting a charitable donation from a Department of Education vendor while he as deputy chancellor. But Cerf later took back the solicitation, and no actions were taken against him.

Tilson describes the investigation into Cerf as a trying experience that turned Cerf’s life “upside down” — all for naught, because it ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing. His take-away is that “truly no good deed goes unpunished” in the education world, which is characterized by “madness,” he says. The full e-mail is below the jump.

Y’know, sometimes I just have to shake my head at the madness of the education world, where truly no good deed goes unpunished.  Exhibit A is what has happened to my friend Chris Cerf, who is Deputy Chancellor of the NYC public schools and one of Joel Klein’s top aides (and an incredible warrior for kids and education reform).  Here’s the story — keep in mind that I’m not making this up:

Chris was one of the top executives at Edison Schools for eight years before Joel Klein persuaded him to come work for him.  Chris had earned stock options at Edison and obviously wanted to keep them, so when he took the job he disclosed them and agreed to recuse himself from any discussions and decisions related to Edison (which has a small contract with the DOE, in an area not under Chris’s purview).

Sure enough, someone with an ax to grind found out about this and started to make a stink so, seeking to head off any controversy or even the hint of a conflict of interest, Chris gave up the options.  End of story, right?  Not so fast — this is the world of educational bureaucracies remember…

The media turned this into a circus, making it seem as if, by giving up the options, Chris had done something wrong to have initially kept them.  The Special Council for Investigation (what an Orwellian name!) spent months turning Chris’s life upside down and — SURPRISE! — found absolutely nothing and reported as such to the NYC Conflicts of Interest Board (COIB), which closed the matter.

This all happened a couple of years ago, but now the story has resurfaced because a document was released which shows that Chris, when he gave up his options, tried to do something nice.  In giving up the options, Chris was simply transferring their value from himself to the owners of Edison, so he asked the chairman of the firm that is the majority owner of Edison, Liberty Partners, to consider making a $60,000 donation to a nonprofit organization on whose board Chris sits that runs wilderness canoe expeditions for teenagers in Maine and Canada (obviously an organization that has nothing to do with the DOE).

You know where this story’s going, don’t you?  Critics started raising questions so again, to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Chris told the chairman of Liberty not to make the donation.  But of course the COIB had to do yet another full investigation — and of course took no action (the headline in the NYT article (below) says Chris was “chided”, but even that’s too strong a word for the mild letter he received).

This NY Sun editorial in 2/07 nails it:
Klein’s Cadre

Editorial of The New York Sun | February 13, 2007
The latest tactic in the effort to block school reform in the city is aimed at one of Chancellor Joel Klein’s deputies, Christopher Cerf. He was asked at a parents meeting last week about whether he had a financial interest in a for-profit education company, Edison Schools. Mr. Cerf said he didn’t, but, without misrepresenting anything, failed to say he’d given up his warrants in the company only the day before. Instead he referred his interlocutor to his financial disclosure forms. The story was thoroughly reported in the Times on Friday, but an editorial in the Times the following day missed the point, suggesting somehow that Mr. Cerf had dodged a forthright disclosure of his financial holdings.

On the contrary, Mr. Cerf has made all his financial disclosures and then some, and it’s important that the jibes at Mr. Cerf be seen for what they are. For he happens to be a triumph of Mr. Klein’s campaign to bring excellence into the leadership of the education department. Mr. Cerf is one of the brightest lawyers of his generation, having clerked on the appeals bench for Skelly Wright and then on the Supreme Court for Justice O’Connor. He was in a position to make millions in the private sector, but, inspired by what was happening in New York, threw in with Messrs. Klein and Bloomberg.

It’s not a matter of his having sold stock in Edison Schools the day before he was asked about it. What he actually did was forgo — he gave away — warrants for Edison Stock that could have been, someday, worth millions. He had no dealing with Edison in his work for the Department of Education. But he wanted to go the extra mile in exchange for a clean field in public service. Which of his or Mr. Klein’s critics has ever made that kind of sacrifice in order to be unencumbered to work within our school system?

Mr. Cerf is but one of a growing cadre of idealists Mr. Klein has recruited. The aide leading the work on accountability — meaning, standards and assessment — is James Liebman, who clerked on the Supreme Court for Justice Stevens, spent many years at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and became a professor at Columbia Law School. Robert Gordon, who was at the top of his class at Yale Law School and clerked for Justice Ginsberg, and worked in the Clinton White House, has joined the Department of Education to work on what the DOE calls fair financing and resources allocation. None of these individuals is a conservative ideologue or leftist theoretician. They are all Democrats whose main mark is that they are practical, idealistic, and capable of earning radically more outside of public service than within the school system.

Nor are these three the only such individuals in the Klein effort. The chancellor signaled early that he was going to break the mold, bringing in Caroline Kennedy to lead the effort to marshal private charitable contributions to supplement the public commitment to education reform. No one is suggesting that the enormous task of reforming the school system can be done without, or in spite of, the career education officials — or even the union. There are still debates to be had on curriculum, vouchers, and the like. But school reform is a big enough job that the best outside talent will be needed, too. The right move for the city is to be encouraging and inspiriting these individuals, not playing gotcha with them when they forsake private gain for the opportunity to help us all.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

More in What's Your Education Story?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.