TRENTON - Gov. Christie's pick to head the state Education Department won unanimous approval Thursday from a Senate panel, even as one conservative lawmaker and members of the public expressed unease with his embrace of the divisive Common Core State Standards.
David C. Hespe, who was education commissioner under Gov. Christie Whitman, has served as acting head of the department since March, following the resignation of Chris Cerf.
He was chief of staff in the department during Christie's first term and returned to the administration after a stint as president of Burlington County College. His nomination now heads to the full Senate, which will likely vote next week.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Hespe indicated his support for charter schools, saying they "provide additional educational opportunities in districts that are struggling."
He said it was possible that the state could increase the length of the school day or year, as Christie called for in his State of the State address, but added, "At this point, it's hard to say we're going to have to do that."
The topic on which he drew the sharpest pushback was the Common Core, a set of grade-specific goals in math and English for kindergarten through 12th grade students.
The standards were adopted by the vast majority of states in 2010 as a means to boost American competitiveness in education.
But in the past year, the standards have faced a conservative backlash based on a fear that Education Department waivers and grants provided to states that adopted rigorous standards - in many cases the Common Core - amounted to a federal takeover of education.
Christie, a Republican weighing a bid for the presidency in 2016, initially embraced the standards but in July created a commission to study them. An interim report is due to him at the end of the month.
New standardized tests aligned with the Common Core were rolled out this school year. The tests are tied to teacher evaluations.
"It's quite obvious that all around the country, many in the educational community are having second thoughts about their original support of Common Core," said Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R., Bergen).
He asked Hespe, "Is there any chance you're going to rethink your support for that concept?"
Hespe replied that the administration is "always reexamining our standards," but said, "The support for the Common Core is very broad in New Jersey."
Carolee Adams, president of the Eagle Forum of New Jersey, a conservative group, asked lawmakers to delay a vote on Hespe's nomination until the test scores are analyzed next year.
Asked by Sen. Nia Gill (D., Essex) how the tests aligned with the standards would be used to evaluate students, Hespe said his department had advised districts to consider the test as just one factor in a child's education. However, passing the test could become a high school graduation requirement as early as 2019.
Also of interest to lawmakers was the cap Christie imposed in 2011 on superintendent salaries - between $120,000 and $175,000, depending on the size of the school district, with a few exceptions.
The cap is set to expire in 2016.
Before the administration implemented the cap, Hespe said, "we just weren't doing our job in the stewardship of taxpayer money."
He said the department would review the efficacy of the cap in the next year, including whether it had affected superintendent longevity.
"If that's going down dramatically, that's going to be a problem," he said, but added that he thought the rule had increased diversity among superintendents.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen), who has proposed legislation to eliminate the cap, said it had led to high turnover and a number of interim superintendents.
Hespe acknowledged the state had lost strong educators to New York and Pennsylvania but said the key question was whether the cap had accelerated that trend.