Assessing Christie’s Latest Education Commissioner

A teacher. Chris Hondros/Newsmakers

The state’s newly confirmed education commissioner, Kimberley Harrington, has the daunting task of representing the Christie administration in what has become a contentious debate over the future of school funding. She is also New Jersey’s fifth commissioner of education in seven years.

Harrington took over the helm of New Jersey’s Department of Education in an acting capacity last fall when David Hespe stepped down, and was confirmed to the post formally last week. She is the first woman and first teacher to serve as commissioner in years.

The commissioner’s role dates to 1846 when the Legislature created the office of state superintendent of public schools. In 1911, the title was changed to commissioner of education. Harrington is one of only a few women to hold the job. In 1993, Mary Lee Fitzgerald became the first woman to hold it; Lucille Davy served as commissioner from 2005 to 2010.

Since Davy, officeholders have served relatively short terms, which reflects the increasing political and public pressure at play. New Jersey had only six commissioners between 1952 and 1990. Frederick Raubinger served for 14 years. In the nearly three decades that followed, the Department of Education had more than ten commissioners with an average tenure of less than three years. David Hespe served just two years in his latest stint. Bret Schundler lasted just six months at the beginning of the Christie administration.

Teacher in Leadership Position

Harrington’s supporters are hopeful that her background as an advocate for both students and educators will allow her to serve as a unifying force as the state tackles numerous tough issues.

“New Jersey has made tremendous progress in advancing our education system over the last six years and Kimberley Harrington’s extensive experience as a classroom teacher and effective administrator will ensure that we continue the progress,” Gov. Chris Christie stated in appointing Harrington. “New Jersey’s educators know Kimberley very well, and she knows them, they have been meeting and talking for years. And those relationships are important to support our students, teachers and parents moving forward.”

Unlike many of her predecessors, Harrington was a classroom teacher in New Jersey for 16 years, working with students from kindergarten to eighth grade. She joined the New Jersey Department of Education in 2012 as the director of academic standards. In this role, she directed the department’s outreach to school leaders and teachers on the best way to align their local curricula with New Jersey’s academic standards.

Harrington also served previously as chief academic officer and assistant commissioner for two years, managing the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, with responsibility for the Division of Early Childhood Education, and offices of primary education, intermediate and secondary education, teaching and learning support, and others. She also led the implementation of New Jersey’s Student Learning Standards, which aim to provide a path for students to become college- and career-ready.

Commissioner Harrington’s Future

Because Harrington’s appointment was confirmed by the state Senate just last week, she has been an “acting” commissioner. But the lack of the full title did not stop Harrington from taking on the state’s most controversial public education issues, including the formula for funding public schools.

“I don’t know that we need a new funding formula, but I think we don’t have the dollars currently to fund the formula that we have, so I think we need the dollars or a new solution,” Harrington stated in testimony before the Assembly Budget Committee hearing on the state Department of Education.

Harrington also struck down the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s transfer rule, which would have required all transferring athletes to sit out for 30 days, with very few exceptions. “Although the amendment purports to promote fairness in high school athletic competition by discouraging students to transfer for athletic advantage, it fails to take into account legitimate reasons for student transfers that may be beyond their control,” Harrington wrote in her decision.

With Christie’s term expiring at the end of the year, Harrington’s future is uncertain. Nevertheless, given her unique background and the obvious benefits of continuity in leadership, she should be given serious consideration by the next governor.

John G. Geppert runs the public law section at Scarinci Hollenbeck and edits the Government & Law Blog. He currently serves as chairperson of the Education Law Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

Assessing Christie’s Latest Education Commissioner