TRENTON - Gov. Christie's choice to lead the state's Education Department vowed Monday to close the "shameful achievement gap" between students born in New Jersey's wealthy and poor areas, and reached out to teachers, calling them "spiritual guides" who make a difference in children's lives.

Christopher Cerf, 56, of Montclair, a former New York City deputy schools chancellor and a former top executive at the country's largest for-profit operator of public schools, was formally introduced Monday as the governor's nominee for education commissioner.

"We live in a state that should be very, very proud of its educational system," Cerf said at a statehouse news conference, "but we also live in a state where the gap between those who were born to economic circumstances that are positive and those who are born to poverty simply do not have equal opportunity for success in our system.

"That, in my judgment, is a shameful situation that all of us should be throwing ourselves at with everything we have to correct."

Christie said he and Cerf have an "interesting and challenging year in terms of reforming an education system in New Jersey that in my view is desperately in need of reform."

The governor thanked acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks, who has led the department since Christie fired Bret Schundler in August in the aftermath of the state's failure to win $400 million in federal education grant money.

Cerf, a Democrat, is chief executive officer of Sangari Global Education, which provides science-education materials. He is known as a supporter of charter schools, teacher and administrator accountability for student achievement, and differentiated pay for teachers.

Among the chief tasks before Cerf, assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, may be to smooth relations with the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union and a frequent target of Christie's criticism.

The governor, a supporter of merit pay, school vouchers, and charter schools, often argues that the NJEA stands in the way of "real reform." He has criticized the tenure system as guaranteeing teachers a job for life, for example, and frequently, including on Monday, says the NJEA has spent millions of dollars on what Christie called "attack ads" targeting him.

On Monday, Christie reiterated that it was the teachers union that called any attempt on his part to balance the state budget with cuts in education aid "the greatest assault on public education in the history of New Jersey." Christie's first budget cut $820 million in state aid to schools.

"I will not be a punching bag for protectors of the status quo, because the status quo has failed," Christie said. "It fails hundreds of thousands of kids in this state every day."

Cerf, who worked as a high school history teacher for four years in Ohio before going to law school at Columbia University, gave teachers a nod Monday.

"I do understand and deeply appreciate what it means to be a good teacher," Cerf said. "They are the absolute essential component in student learning. They are the spiritual guides; they're the ones who really make a difference."

While working for New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, Cerf worked with the teachers union to come up with a compromise on merit pay involving bonuses to high-achieving schools instead of individual teachers.

Steve Wollmer, an NJEA spokesman, said the union was encouraged that Cerf had a good relationship with the teachers union in New York. He said the school-based bonus program Cerf had worked on was similar to the compromise on the federal Race to the Top grant application agreed to by the NJEA and Schundler that Christie later rejected.

"We're taking the point of view that it's time to seek common ground," Wollmer said. "The public has had enough of this fighting with the governor. It might be entertaining, but it's not productive."

Randi Weingarten, who was president of the teachers union in New York while Cerf was deputy chancellor, said that although she and Cerf approached problems from very different vantage points, they had a "very constructive relationship."

"Chris is a good listener and tries to solve problems, so he's no pushover," Weingarten said. "This guy focuses very much on kids and schools, but he knows that you can't do it without teachers and their unions."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Cerf "played a crucial role in our work to turn around a once-broken school system that had failed generations of students. His creativity and leadership, and his willingness to tackle the toughest issues head-on by putting the interests of children ahead of the special interests, helped our administration achieve record gains in achievement levels and graduation rates."

Cerf sketched broad outlines of his approach to education Monday but delved into few details.

Finding the best teachers and school leaders is "the last frontier of school reform," he said, and accountability for student learning is critical.

Cerf said that parents should be allowed to choose which public school their child attends and that schools should be empowered to make decisions, which he called the flip side of accountability.

Asked whether he supported school vouchers, Cerf said he was for "anything that works."

"We live in a country where zip code is destiny," he said.

While the evidence on whether school vouchers works is evolving, he said, he favors "continuing to develop that evidence."

Regarding tenure, Cerf said a system that guarantees job security for life, regardless of what is best for the students, "puts the interests of adults ahead of the interests of children."

Christie said Monday that he has known Cerf since his time at Edison Schools, the private operator of public schools, and that the two shared a belief that New Jersey's education system is broken.

Cerf served for eight years as president and chief operating officer of Edison, which was hired to operate failing city schools in Philadelphia, a model that the School District has largely abandoned.

As a deputy chancellor in New York, Cerf came under criticism in 2007 after he gave up his equity stake in Edison the day before he was expected to appear before a parents' group to answer questions about Edison. At the meeting, Cerf told parents that he had no financial interest in the company but failed to disclose until a telephone interview hours later that he had divested himself only the day before, according to the New York Times.

Cerf left the deputy chancellor position to work on Bloomberg's reelection campaign.

Cerf, a graduate of Amherst College, also worked previously as an associate counsel under President Bill Clinton and clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com

Inquirer staff writer Rita Giordano contributed to this report.