Politics & Policy

Cleveland’s Education-Reform Plan

A bipartisan law may save the city’s failing school district.

Twenty twelve has not been a banner year for teachers’ unions. From California to Illinois to New Jersey, unions across the country have been threatening strikes, combatting legislation, and kindling protests in response to attempts by governors to reform their states’ public-education systems.

With the images of teachers storming the capitol building in Madison, Wis., still fresh, you might think the chances of finding common ground between unions and reformers in other states would be slim. But legislation passed earlier this month in Ohio suggests compromise is possible. The deal — struck between Republican governor John Kasich, Democratic mayor of Cleveland Frank Jackson, and a bipartisan group of local officials, businessmen, and, yes, even the local teachers’ union — is an impressive, encouraging break from the trend of conflict and stalemate.

The Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools puts in place a series of comprehensive reforms that drastically reshape the city’s failing school system. Cleveland has seen 30,000 students leave its public schools over the past decade for suburban or private schools, and those who have stayed graduate at a pitiful rate of 63 percent, with just 7 percent of high-school students going on to graduate from college. Test scores are well below the national average, and 500 teachers were laid off this year, stretching meager resources even thinner.

The Cleveland Plan puts forth three main solutions: restructuring teachers’ employment arrangements, empowering school officials to enforce performance expectations, and strengthening charter schools.

Before the Cleveland Plan, tenure and seniority were the sole factors considered in deciding which teachers to lay off. This caused talented young teachers to be let go regardless of performance or specialty. Now, “the idea of tenure is effectively being eliminated,” Governor Kasich told National Review Online. Under the Cleveland Plan, schools will make layoff decisions based on performance evaluations. Tenure and seniority will factor only as “secondary considerations” — tiebreakers should teachers share the same performance score.

In an interview with NRO, Mayor Jackson compared the new system to a series of buckets. “Those who do not have good evaluations go into Bucket One, and then so on, upward. If we need to do layoffs or cutbacks, it would not be by seniority or tenure alone, but by bucket. . . . You could be a teacher with tenure and highest seniority, but if your evaluation is in Bucket One, then the only thing that protects you is how you stand there. They will lay off everyone in Bucket One before moving onward.”

In addition, important oversight measures have been added for administrators. The district superintendent will now be able to impose fixes on failing schools that supersede existing collective-bargaining agreements. Schools will be monitored through improved “district report cards,” and teachers can be fired if they are ineffective, defined as receiving two consecutive poor evaluations.

In an effort to expand beyond a “single source” model of education, Cleveland will become the first school district in the state to share its tax dollars with local charter schools. The aim is to ensure that parents have access to quality schools even if their local public school is failing. Eric Gordon, CEO and superintendent of the district, told NRO that the plan “would replace failing school models and would create a market for families to have choices — choices beyond just leaving the district.”

Gordon cautions that “the devil is in the implementation details.” While many of the tools are there, much of the Cleveland Plan’s success will depend on how these measures are carried out. But many, from the governor to the mayor to education experts, are optimistic.

Terry Ryan studies Ohio’s education programs and policy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national nonprofit think tank focusing on education policy for K–12 schools. He says that “the potential for this to be different [from other attempted reforms over the past decade] is that there is a mayor who owns the issue . . . and a superintendent who is committed, talented, young, and dedicated.”

“It’s a fresh start,” remarks Governor Kasich. “People now are optimistic that everyone is growing in the same direction.”

Beyond the merits of the actual policy, much of the optimism around the Cleveland Plan stems from the story of its passage, in which an unconventional, bipartisan group of legislators and outside organizations came together to, as Kasich says, “put children first and adults second.”

Mayor Jackson served as the initial catalyst, pulling together local officials, business leaders, philanthropic groups, and outside advisory organizations to begin drafting the overhaul package, starting almost a year before it was introduced to the legislature. As proponents began to look for political backing, Mayor Jackson made the critical yet unexpected decision to turn to the statehouse for help. “Our ‘-isms’ put us at odds sometimes,” says the mayor, “but on this one [the governor] was onboard in the beginning and he did not waver at all.”

Kasich also applauds the partnership: “We are in some ways, in personalities, the odd couple. . . . But he came to see me and said it was important to him. And I said that ‘I’d use my dying breath to help you pass this.’”

The cooperation between the governor and the mayor was emblematic of the entire process. Despite the heated fallout over Senate Bill 5 — the collective-bargaining reforms Kasich supported that were eventually overturned by referendum — members of the two parties became allies.

State senator Nina Turner, a Democrat and one of Kasich’s most vocal critics, is a perfect example. Despite having lambasted the governor for his collective-bargaining proposal and having worked to defeat it, she stood next to Kasich when he signed the Cleveland Plan. “It was clear that something had to be done for the city’s children,” Turner told NRO, “and we set to work finding a way to make it happen. The governor was very supportive from the start.”

As the bill was being drafted, Mayor Jackson made the controversial decision not to include representatives of the union. “We were certainly on the outside looking in at the beginning of this,” Cleveland Teachers Union president David Quolke told NRO. “The mayor had completely excluded [us].”

But once a draft of the bill had been prepared, Jackson invited them to the table. His challenge was simple: If you have a better idea, let us see it. From that point forward, Quolke says, the choice was pretty clear: “If you’re not at the table, then you are probably on the menu.” While the union reps were able to extract some relatively minor concessions, the core of the bill remained intact. “We went through a couple of months of really aggressive work around the table with the teachers’ union . . . but we didn’t bend on substance,” says Gordon. One significant contribution from the union is the Cleveland Plan’s treatment of teacher tenure in layoff decisions. Mayor Jackson, referring to the decision to make tenure a secondary consideration rather than something to be ignored entirely, says, “After a lot of wrangling, the unions came up with the solution, and their solution was better than what we proposed.”

Five months after the law was first introduced, Governor Kasich was able to go on stage with parents, students, local leaders from both parties, and union representatives to sign the Cleveland Plan.

— Harry Graver is an editorial intern at National Review.


The Latest