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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.

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