Cleveland schools are doing great things despite what critics (Stephen Dyer and Diane Ravitch) say

Diane Ravitch posted a guest blog by Stephen Dyer earlier this week entitled “The Good, Bad and Ugly in the Cleveland Plan.” Dyer, former chair of the K-12 education finance subcommittee in the Ohio House, was tossed out by Akron-area voters in 2010 after two terms. His major claim to fame during his time in office was helping to pass Governor Strickland’s ill-fated Evidence Based Model (EBM) of school funding. The EBM promised billions in new school spending over ten years, but it was absolutely mute about where all this new revenue would come from. Columbus Dispatch columnist Joe Hallet wrote of the EBM plan in 2010

But Ohioans don't live in Fantasy Land; only 6 percent of them believe Strickland kept his promise, according to this month's Dispatch Poll. The model is not funded and, under Strickland's plan, it won't be until at least 2019. If it were funded, the state would pay out about $10 billion to school districts in the current fiscal year; instead, it is spending $6.5 billion, and $457 million of that is one-time federal stimulus money.

The EBM was such a cruel hoax that when current Governor Kasich and the General Assembly killed it in 2011 there was almost no opposition to its demise. 

This history is important because Ravitch asked Dyer to write about the Cleveland School Reform plan (for a non-partisan review of the reform plan check out this analysis by KidsOhio.org), and he yet again makes claims about school funding that are simply inaccurate. He writes that the Cleveland School Reform plan seeks “a massive local property tax levy to offset massive state funding cuts,” and that “education funding (in Ohio) was slashed by $1.8 billion over the previous budget. Cleveland got cut by $84 million.” But Dyer’s numbers in this case are as faulty and misleading as were the numbers he and former Governor Strickland used in selling their EBM model in 2009.

The following numbers come from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s fact sheet, five-year forecast, and the district’s most recent state audit.

Here are some key facts.

  • CMSD has been and will continue to shrink. The district K-12 enrollment forecast is:

-          FY12 – 40,758

-          FY13 – 38,854

-          FY14 – 37,548

-          FY15 – 36,300

-          FY16 – 35,448

  • The annual budget was about $1.4 billion in 2011 and more than 60 percent of these dollars came from the state, 22 percent from local property taxes, 7 percent from federal grant aid and the remaining 11 percent from other sources.
  • The district spends about $14,500 per pupil.
  • The five-year forecast calls for 50 fewer employees each year while healthcare rates are expected to grow 7.7 percent in FY13 and 9.7 percent in FY14-16. Salaries and benefits account for 65.3 percent of district spending.
  • Cleveland received $27.3 million in federal fiscal stabilization funds in 2010 and another $34.1 million in 2011, and in 2012 the district received $17.7 million in federal Ed Jobs dollars. These funds have dried up.

The facts indeed show that CMSD is facing a tough time fiscally, but the cause of this pain has far more to do with declining student enrollment, the demise of one-time federal stimulus dollars, a persistently weak economy, and rising healthcare costs than it does with “massive state” funding cuts.

Dyer is correct that the Cleveland Plan does seek to pass a 15 mil levy. But, he failed to mention this would be the district’s first operating levy in 16 years. According to Dyer this new local money will be used to support a plan that “is right out of the free market reform handbook.” As evidence of this he picks out one of the many reform strategies in the plan - the call for closing failed schools. He then complains this isn’t fair because school closings will be based primarily on test scores. Dyer fails to mention that student achievement is painfully low (only 30 percent of fifth graders are proficient in math, for example), and more than half of the city’s schools were rated D or F by the state in 2011.

It is this unacceptably weak academic performance over many years, and through many comparatively tepid school reform plans, that this Cleveland reform plan seeks to address through a comprehensive and bold package of reforms. These include plans to:

  • Attract, retain, and develop excellent teachers.
  • Replace failing schools with new, high quality schools.
  • Increase graduation rates in every neighborhood.
  • Make sure all graduates are ready for college, career and work.
  • Update textbooks, computers, and technologies.
  • Maintain disciplined classrooms where students learn every day.
  • Provide real world education in local businesses.
  • Make the school year longer for students who need it most.
  • Help fund outstanding, accountable charter schools.
  • Base teacher pay more on performance.

This multi-pronged reform plan offers Cleveland the best shot it has had in decades at turning around its long suffering schools. And despite complaints from Dyer and others that this is some sort of business takeover of public education, the Cleveland Plan and the levy has the support of a bipartisan who’s who of Cleveland political, business, community, education, religious, and labor leaders. Everyone involved understands that the district has to pass the operating levy for the reforms to take hold, and it is the responsibility of Clevelanders to step up and deliver.

I was discouraged to read Dyer’s piece, but I was even more disheartened that Diane Ravitch would seek out such a distorted take on what is actually going on in Cleveland. In the mid-1990s I helped educators in Poland translate her remarkable pieces on civil society from English into Polish. In those articles she called for local self-government, local democracy, and citizens stepping up to take care of themselves. This is exactly what Cleveland is trying to do, yet somehow Ravitch and Dyer see this as being “good, bad and ugly.”

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