The Jackson Plan
The bold move by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson in unveiling his “Plan for Transforming Schools” is a significant step forward for Cleveland, its schools, and, most importantly, its children. The Jackson Plan has the potential to make Cleveland one of the nation’s school reform leaders.
In time, it would help all of Cleveland’s schools to better provide the high quality education that every child in the city deserves. By focusing laser-like on school performance, regardless of school type (district and charter alike), it would reward and encourage the expansion and replication of great schools while putting much needed pressure on those schools that don’t (district and charter alike) to improve or get lost.
The Jackson Plan’s sense of urgency is well warranted. Despite laudable school reform efforts in Cleveland over the years - including a highly touted transformation plan in early 2010 put forth by then superintendent Eugene Sanders, and largely crafted by current district head Eric Gordon – the city has struggled to educate its children to a high standard. In fact, student achievement in Cleveland is still painfully low (only 30 percent of fifth graders are proficient in math, for example), and more than half of the city's schools (charter and district) were rated D or F by the state in 2011. Tellingly, more than 30,000 children have abandoned the city's schools in the last decade alone for other places. (To be sure, the city’s population is also shrinking, but it is unclear what’s cause and what’s effect.)
No city can survive such a perfect storm of economic weakness, demographic decline and educational failure and Mayor Jackson and his team have said with their plan that “enough is enough” at least as regards the education piece.
Their plan resembles ongoing efforts in reform-minded places as diverse as New York City, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Denver. Like in those cities, Cleveland’s plan focuses on strategies apt to have the greatest impact on student achievement in the shortest amount of time. Specifically, the plan seeks a portfolio approach to school management that includes:
- Significantly increasing the number of high-performing schools, both district and charter, while closing failing schools;
- Maximizing and expanding enrollment in Cleveland’s existing high-performing district and public charter schools;
- Investing in promising schools by giving their leaders additional resources, the freedom to build high-performing teams, and the ability to make financial and instructional decisions based on their students’ needs;
- Seeking flexibility in the recruitment, hiring, retention, and remuneration of teachers (this will require a change of state law); and
- Sustaining both district and charter transformation schools through a levy request that would provide new dollars for both effective district and effective charter schools.
Not surprisingly, self-interested critics are already taking shots at the mayor’s plan. From one side, the Cleveland Teachers Union complains that they were not included in its development and as such might not support the plan. Further, because the Jackson Plan contains some elements of the controversial Senate Bill 5 that the teacher unions found most objectionable it would come as no surprise if they worked to kill the effort. One early clue is the chilly reception that some Democratic legislators – including those from Cleveland – gave the mayor’s proposal.
From the other side, the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education – one of the state’s two charter school associations – objects to the plan because it would lead to the forced closure of charter schools that have also failed to meet the academic needs of Cleveland’s kids. Five of the seven lowest performing schools in Cleveland, for example, last year were charter schools yet continue in business as usual. Again, such broken schools fail children and Mayor Jackson is absolutely right to no longer tolerate such failure for his city’s children.
Mayor Jackson’s plan needs and deserves the support of lawmakers in Columbus. Fortunately, initial public comments from the Governor and key Republican legislative leaders who control both the House and Senate seem supportive and downright encouraging. The Jackson Plan offers Cleveland the opportunity to help turn around that city’s long-suffering schools. Its success or failure will resonate throughout the state and likely beyond. It is brave because it puts the interest of children first, and it should be supported by all who want to see Cleveland improve the education and life-chances of its youngest citizens.
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