Cleveland may be the one city in which mayoral control of schools has so far been an unabashed failure. In the 14 years since Ohio state officials handed over control of the traditional district to city hall, none of the three mayors who held the chief executive job during that period have done much to get a handle over the district’s operations or have managed to make any of its “transformation” plans stick. This while cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and D.C. have made improvements. Its current two-year-old reorganization plan — which has included has been slowed down by the retirement of chief executive Eugene Sanders (who proposed the initial plan) early last year and a scandal involving Renee Cavor, the bureaucrat charged with overseeing its execution. And with four out of every ten eighth-graders dropping out by senior year of high school, only 52 percent of young black men in eighth grade graduating in five years, and abysmally high levels of students condemned to special ed ghettos, Cleveland continues its competition with Detroit and Indianapolis Public Schools for the position of Superfund Site of American public education.
Yet second-term Mayor Frank Jackson may finally take some real action and essentially take steps towards l if he can get Ohio state officials to buy into his latest reform plan. As with everything when it comes to who gave Jackson’s plan a shout-out last night) will back it wholeheartedly But his plan still doesn’t go far enough in abandoning the obsolete and ineffective traditional district model.
Under the plan, Jackson proposes to partially decentralize school management by embracing a portfolio approach to operating its traditional schools. Top-performing schools would be allowed to manage their own budgets — including hiring and firing of teachers — while low performing schools would be aggressively overhauled. At the very least, it moves at least some teacher hiring decisions away from central bureaucracies, which often conspire through incompetence and servile relationships with American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association locals to effectively keep principals from actually managing their schools. Year-round schooling, with.schools getting the ability to extend the school day.by longer than six hours, is also on the table. The plan also calls for the district to partner (and share dollars with) with some high-quality charter schools, while authorizing new charters. Particularly likely to be folded into the district’s portfolio is Breakthrough Schools, a collection of six schools in Cleveland that have garnered attention for its success with students who would have otherwise been stuck in local failure mills.
The most-interesting aspect of Jackson’s plan lies with the proposed creation of a “Transformation Alliance” that will be charged with regulating school quality across the entire city. As envisioned by Jackson, the outfit would assess both the district and charter school operations, weed out failing charters and district schools, and inform parents about high-quality school options. This is a clear step toward embracing the Hollywood Model of Education under which a state or local agency would regulate schools instead of operating them. And honestly, Jackson should have built the entire plan around it.
Jackson deserves credit for offering something other than a few half-measures. He should also be praised for recognizing that negotiating with the AFT local on what his plan should entail in the hopes of collaboration is a fool’s errand — and for lobbying state legislators hard last year for a more-comprehensive statewide teacher evaluation system. Chances are that the Republican-controlled state legislature (which must approve the plan) will bless it and Gov. John Kasich (who gave Jackson’s plan a shout-out last night) will back it wholeheartedly But his plan still doesn’t go far enough in abandoning the obsolete and ineffective traditional district model.
For one, the portfolio approach still leaves the central bureaucracy in charge of 55 percent of the district’s schools, effectively putting the administrators whose abysmal leadership led to their status as failure factories in the first place. As seen in cities such as New Orleans — where charters have all but displaced traditional district schools — and New York City, you must either abandon the district model entirely or bring in reform-minded school leaders who are willing to slot it out with NEAR and AFT locals and midlevel mandarins who are more likely to sympathize with laggard teachers than battle for reform. Given that the district has had three chieftains in the past 14 years — and the difficulties Sanders and most-recently, Gordon, have had in overhauling the district — Jackson would have been better off embracing the Big Easy approach.
Jackson also doesn’t address how he will allow families to be real decision-makers in education. At the very least, he should allow for a Parent Trigger mechanism that families can use to force overhauls such as converting a district school into q chatter. He should have also made school governance boards consisting solely of parents part of his plan. While it’s nice for the Transformation Council to serve as an information source for families in need of information to make smart choices, Jackson’s plan doesn’t include developing a comprehensive city-wide school data system that would put thorough, easily-understandable data on school performance at the fingertips of the parents who seek it. And Jackson’s plan doesn’t detail whether the district will abandon zoned schooling and other Zip Code Education policies.
Finally, Jackson’s plan to seek a property tax increase to help the district close $105 million in budget shortfalls in the coming two fiscal years shows that the mayor hasn’t learned that more money doesn’t equal better results, financial or academic — especially if the district doesn’t hold a line on the high costs of traditional teacher compensation systems and contract deals with teachers’ union affiliates. Between 2005 and 2009, the amount Cleveland spent on teacher benefits increased by 79 percent; the district now spent 55 cents on benefits for every dollar of salary in 2009 (the latest year available from the U.S. Census Bureau) versus 30 cents five years ago, a greater amount than the average 32 cents for every dollar of salary spent by school districts nationally. By the way, Cleveland’s district revenues increased by only seven percent in that period. Instead of pursuing a tax increase that Cleveland voters will likely (and rightly) vote down, Jackson should lobby the legislature to allow Cleveland to become an enterprise zone of sorts, giving the district the ability to ditch expensive degree- and seniority-based pay scales.
All that said, Jackson is at least making the case that mayoral control in Cleveland may not be a lost cause — and, in fact, should be the norm throughout the nation’s big cities.