Strange political bedfellows coming together around Cleveland’s school-reform efforts

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is seeking to remake and refashion the city’s long-suffering schools through a series of bold reforms that include making significant changes to the district’s collective bargaining agreement, passing a school levy for the first time in more than 15 years, and sharing public dollars with high-performing charter schools. As bold as the Jackson Plan is, however, even more audacious is the political coalition that seems to be coalescing around it.

Controversial components of the mayor’s plan include basing pay, layoffs, and rehiring decisions on performance and specialization instead of traditional factors like seniority and credentials; replacing the current 304-page collective bargaining agreement, when it expires in 2013, and using a “fresh start” to renegotiate a new and far more streamlined contract; and providing high-performing charter schools with local levy dollars to support their day-to-day operations.

The Jackson Plan’s labor flexibility and levy support for high-performing charter schools are ideas that have long been anathema to statehouse Democrats and their union supporters. Not surprisingly, more than a few legislative Democrats and union officials have pointed out in recent weeks that some of the proposed changes in the mayor’s plan to the Cleveland teacher union collective bargaining agreement mirror those that were in the contentious and voter rejected Senate Bill 5. Democrats in both the House and Senate vehemently opposed Senate Bill 5 from its introduction to its demise (as did Mayor Jackson) in November. Further, organized labor, led by the teachers’ unions, raised over $20 million to help “kill the bill.”

Mayor Jackson has said repeatedly that his plan is not about politics, it is about the children of Cleveland and what they need and deserve.

Now, statehouse Democrats and organized labor are being asked by Mayor Jackson to sign off on changes to law that they worked so hard to kill just months ago. Why has the mayor put his Democratic colleagues in such an uncomfortable position? Because he believes, and evidence from successful school reform efforts in other big cities backs him up, that these changes would give Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon the flexibility he and his team need to keep and build the strongest teaching force possible.

Mayor Jackson has said repeatedly that his plan is not about politics, it is about the children of Cleveland and what they need and deserve. The fact that his plan has policy proposals that mirror what was in Senate Bill 5 doesn’t matter to him if these policies can benefit students and families. This position is hard for Democrats and the teachers’ union to stomach, but to their credit both seem to be working with the mayor and his leadership team to find a way to do it.

No one denies that Cleveland’s students are suffering and strong medicine is needed to try and turn things around in a city that has floundered from failed reform to failed reform for decades. Student performance in Cleveland is abysmal. The Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) results (on the NAEP – National Assessment of Educational Progress), for example, are considered the Gold Standard for looking at student achievement in mathematics and reading across 21 of the nation’s large urban districts. Cleveland’s students are bottom dwellers on these exams (as they are on state exams). Recent TUDA results showed that 68 percent of Cleveland’s fourth graders scored at below basic level in reading compared to 45 percent of students in the other large cities and 34 percent nationally. The numbers are even worse in mathematics.

The Jackson Plan offers the possibility of success because it is multifaceted, systemic, and forces change across the city’s educational landscape. Poor-performing schools face radical restructuring or closure while quality schools will receive more resources to expand what they do. The central office will be asked to streamline its operations and operate more efficiently while teachers will be rewarded, supported and held accountable for performance. Taxpayers will be asked to support a new levy request, and if all goes according to plan children in the city will receive stronger and better learning opportunities.

There looks to be an emerging bipartisan political consensus in Cleveland and Columbus that doing nothing is not an option, and that some form of Mayor Jackson’s plan is the best hope for moving forward. Democrats and Republicans at the statehouse are coming together to show support for the Jackson Plan, and if legislative language acceptable to both the mayor and the Cleveland Teachers Union can be presented to the legislature it has a real shot at becoming law. Time is of the essence here as legislation would have to be passed in time for the school district to file a levy request in August. For this to happen, a bill has to be presented to the General Assembly by the end of this week and passed by mid-Spring.

In a remarkable bipartisan show of support for the mayor’s plan a conversation was held this past Friday in Cleveland among northern Ohio lawmakers, Mayor Jackson, and the Cleveland Teachers Union. The discussions were convened by Senator Nina Turner (D-Cleveland) and Senator Peggy Lehner (R- Kettering, and chair of the Senate Education Committee). Joining the Senators in convening the meeting were Republican House Finance and Appropriations Chairman Ron Amstutz and Democratic State Representative Sandra Williams (head of the Legislative Black Caucus).

Such bipartisan leadership in search of solutions to thorny issues in Ohio has been sorely lagging in recent years. The fact that this is happening in an election year is all the more remarkable. Of course this could all fall apart, but all sides seem serious about finding a deal. Maybe, just maybe, real school reform in Ohio can move forward in a bipartisan way. That would be a good thing for not only Cleveland but Ohio.

More By Author

Related Articles