Adults biggest hurdle to reforms that Cleveland's students deserve

Last week, Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eugene Sanders unveiled a major plan to transform the district, Ohio's second-largest and one in dire need of fixing.???? The plan (see Eric's analysis here) aims to improve academic achievement by, among other things, right-sizing the district by closing 18 schools and laying off teachers, allowing high-quality charter operators to take over some buildings, increasing intra-district choice options, and reassigning teachers to schools based on their teaching interests and abilities.

Sanders has a tough road ahead of him to get these reforms implemented and at least two major obstacles to overcome.

Obstacle number one is money.???? The plan will cost $70 million over three years and Sanders is hoping for significant investment from the philanthropic community and Cleveland's share of Ohio's potential Race to the Top winnings to foot the bill.???? He'll also need a continued high level of state investment in the district.???? But Ohio's Race to the Top application isn't a sure-thing, the state faces a $5 billion-plus deficit when state budget talks resume this time next year, and as Governor Strickland's evidence-based funding model is phased in over the next decade, districts will have less and less say in how they actually spend state funding.

Obstacle number two is the adults who benefit from the school system.???? First, the teachers union.???? Its extensive, and incredibly detailed, collective bargaining agreement will require serious reworking in order for many of the plan's changes to take place.???? And it doesn't look like that change will come easy.???? After complaints from the local union president about being shut out of the development of the transformation plan, AFT President Randi Weingarten herself came to town Friday to meet with Sanders and make clear that the fate of his transformation plan hung on Sanders working more closely with the union.???? Weingarten told reporters there, ???????I am deadly serious about a reform agenda that does things with teachers, not to them.???????

Second, a scandal involving a member of Sanders' leadership team.???? Two weeks ago I blogged about Daniel Burns, a school official who allegedly stole more than $800,000 from two Ohio school districts while Sanders was superintendent and hired private investigators to look into the lives and backgrounds of employees and private citizens who were critical of Sanders.???? Sanders and leadership from both districts say the administrator in question was acting alone and they have forcefully denied any knowledge of the criminal activity, though information has emerged to indicate that at least one of the investigations began with a tip from Sanders himself.???? The Cleveland Plain Dealer sums up well how this situation impacts the district's reform plan.

Sanders' proposed education reforms would be a serious step forward in helping Cleveland's public schools and its children. But, the adults in charge of implementing these reforms look perilously close to screwing it up. That would be a serious blow to Cleveland, its children and to urban school reform efforts across the Buckeye State. Ohio badly needs an urban school reform success story and despite the obvious challenges we're rooting for Cleveland and its reformers.

--Emmy Partin

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