An acting commissioner, Rochelle Hendricks, has been leading the state Education Department after Christie fired Bret Schundler in August in the aftermath of the state's loss of $400 million in federal education funding.
Christie, a supporter of school choice and merit pay for teachers, cut state aid to schools by $820 million in his first budget year.
Cerf now serves as the chief executive officer of Sangari Global Education, which provides science-education materials to children.
Before his current job, Cerf worked on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reelection campaign as a senior campaign adviser. He served as deputy chancellor of the city's education department from 2004 to 2009, managing labor relations and negotiations, recruitment, and other areas, according to Sangari's website. Cerf also served as the schools chancellor's chief adviser on transformation, leading an effort to reorganize the financial and organizational structure of the city's schools.
A supporter of charter schools, Cerf closed 90 failing schools during his tenure in New York.
Cerf served for eight years as president and chief operating officer of Edison Schools, the for-profit operator of public schools that was hired to operate failing city schools in Philadelphia, a model that has largely been abandoned by the School District.
Cerf worked as an associate counsel under President Bill Clinton, clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and taught history to high school students for four years before going to law school.
Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said, "We're looking forward to working cooperatively with him. We understand he had a cooperative relationship with the union in New York."
Hinting at the strained relations between the NJEA and Christie, who frequently contends that the union is more interested in preserving the status quo than in helping students learn, Wollmer said the union was optimistic about a fresh start.
"It's a new commissioner, a new year, a new opportunity for us to connect with the commissioner's office," Wollmer said. "We really want to be able to do that. There's way too much of importance for us not to be working cooperatively."
New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said Cerf's "professional background appears to fit in with the administration's desire to improve the delivery of education to children in poorer communities, as well as to make statewide changes in teacher compensation, tenure, and evaluation processes. We look forward to hearing Mr. Cerf's vision for the state's public schools."
Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this article.