2/7/2012 6:09:00 AMCleveland Mayor Frank Jackson proposes sweeping plan to improve education for city students
By Patrick O'Donnell, The Plain Dealer
Mayor Frank Jackson hopes to triple the number of Cleveland students attending good schools by throwing out union rules governing teacher pay and layoffs, partnering more with high-performing charter schools and giving successful district schools more flexibility in how they do their jobs.
Jackson's plan (pdf), presented to teachers, city council and local legislators Monday night, also calls for changes in state law that would apply only to Cleveland and for Cleveland voters to approve a tax increase in November.
His plan would put Cleveland in the growing minority of districts that treat successful charter schools as allies, not the enemies that many districts consider the schools, which are public but independently operated. It also continues Jackson's push last year to develop a merit pay system for teachers and to wipe out rules that make seniority the deciding factor in teacher layoffs.
Jackson said such "systemic changes" are needed to resolve the district's ongoing financial struggles and to give children a better education, something he considers key to the city's future.
Though Jackson had asked the legislature to change teacher pay and hiring rules statewide last summer, it did not. He is now asking the legislature to change the laws specifically for Cleveland, as a pilot program for Ohio's only district under mayoral control.
"We don't give up," Jackson said. "We just find another way to get there."
The mayor's plan comes as the district faces a budget deficit of from $55 to $65 million next year, which would force cuts on top of school closings and massive budget and staff cutbacks over the last few years. In addition, the student population has plummeted from more than 70,000 when the district last won an operating tax increase in 1996 to 42,000 today.
Jackson's plan, created with school district Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon, would treat charter schools that perform well as part of the city's "portfolio" of schools, even sharing tax money with those that partner with the district.
It calls for the state to crack down on poor-performing charter schools that have siphoned students from city schools without providing a better education. He would also create a "Cleveland Transformation Alliance," a public-private board with the power to make sure any new charters meet certain standards or they won't be allowed to operate in Cleveland.
Within the district, the plan would eliminate the district's poor-performing schools and create new schools faster, while giving schools that do well flexibility to set curriculum, spend their money and even set their own schedules.
That could mean later school days for high-schoolers and even year-round classes, especially so young children do not regress over the summer, Gordon said.
Jackson presented the plan to Gov. John Kasich in Columbus last Thursday and to various groups in the city on Friday and Monday. Though Kasich had told The Plain Dealer last month that he eagerly awaited Jackson's plan and was happy to support aggressive reform efforts, he and his staff were not ready to endorse the plan on Monday.
"Right now our policy guys have the plan," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols. "We're looking at it and will ultimately discuss it with the legislature. We're very early in the process."
Jackson said he expected the governor to mention the plan during today's State of the State address.
Cleveland Teachers Union President David Quolke objected to his union not being included in creating the plan. He said his union has agreed to many changes the district wanted the last few years and is willing to work on others.
"We are an instrument for change, not an obstacle to change," Quolke said after being briefed on the plan by Jackson and Gordon Monday evening.
Quolke worried that the law changes Jackson is seeking from the legislature will mirror the controversial and overturned Senate Bill 5.
"I've been in the district a lot of years, and for every superintendent, I've seen a reform plan come and go," he said. "Teachers will embrace change if they're a part of it."
In contract negotiations this summer, the district had sought a merit pay system but CTU would agree only to discussing that option further.
Mayor Jackson said he did not talk to the union before coming up with his latest plan because he wanted to avoid further delay.
"We need to get something done," he said. "We've been in perpetual discussion about a lot of things. Our sense of urgency is such that something has to happen in a systemic way and it has to happen now."
Jackson did consult with the city's business community and has its backing for the plan. Representatives of the Cleveland Foundation and Greater Cleveland Partnership, the city's chamber of commerce, joined him and Gordon in Columbus to present the plan to Kasich. Alan Rosskamm, chief executive officer of the Breakthrough Schools, the charter school group working with the district also attended.
The Greater Cleveland Partnership had tried last summer to organize several districts and political leaders to push for statewide changes to teacher work rules, pay and contracts. In the end, only Jackson, Gordon and school board Chairperson Denise Link signed the letter last June asking Kasich and legislative leaders for the changes.
William Christopher, chairman of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, said Friday that businesses want Cleveland children to be educated well enough to fill the high-skill positions available now and in the future. He said that backing the plan shows businesses "taking more community ownership" of students' educational future.
Ronn Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation, said he is proud to back the plan.
"We think this is the most innovative plan for public school reform in the United States," Richard said.
Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an association of urban districts, said the plan is well-crafted and well-considered. Though the changes have all been tried elsewhere, he said the combination of them is unusual.
"It has the potential to make a huge difference," he said. "It has the right components to it, so I have to be optimistic about it."
The district has already distinguished itself from other districts by sponsoring charter schools in the city. The Cleveland schools have worked closely with Rosskamm and Breakthrough, sponsoring five of its schools.
Casserly said districts partnering with charters are an "emerging phenomenon."
In announcing Jackson's plan, the district included successful Breakthrough schools and their students in counting the number of students attending public schools in Cleveland rated effective or higher on the state report card.
The "portfolio" model in the plan would have the district sponsoring more charters, sharing tax money with chosen charters and allowing those charters to share food or curriculum services with the district. Gordon said he has looked at how portfolio systems are working in Baltimore and Denver in suggesting this shift.
Rosskamm said the goal of tripling the number of Cleveland students in schools --district and charter -- that are rated effective or excellent in six years is achievable, noting that the number has risen from 4,000 students to more than 11,000 in the last five years.
The proposed Transformation Alliance - a committee likely made up of city and charter school board members, parents, teachers and philanthropic, community and business leaders - would make sure any new charters seeking to open in the city would meet academic standards, so that poorly-run charters would not take money and students away from better schools.
Cleveland now has more than 60 charter schools operating within district borders. They have made big strides over the past few years, according to an analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On the last state report card, 21 percent of local charter schools were in the bottom ranking of academic emergency compared with 41 percent of district schools. And 20 percent earned excellent rankings compared with 5 percent of district schools. When it comes to overall test scores, six of the top 10 performers in the city are charter schools, including two sponsored by the district and two in the Constellation Schools chain.
But the city also has some of the lowest-performing charter schools in the state. More than a dozen have closed for academic or financial reasons, sometimes upending families with abrupt shutdowns in the middle of the year.
Gordon said improving schools within the district is the other major part of the plan. The district's Transformation Plan, approved in 2010, calls for raising the graduation rate and closing or replacing failing schools. The new plan, he said, outlines more specific steps to achieve those goals.
For instance, the plan asks the legislature to act quickly in dealing with failing schools. It also calls for principals whose schools are successful to be given more operating freedom, even setting their own schedules or curriculum.
Gordon said schools will decide how to spend their money, picking which grades, subjects or areas need more attention based on student performance. And the district's central office, which has traditionally directed schools, will shift into a service provider.
Schools that need to improve, Gordon said, will have more help from the central office, both advisory and financially, but with the understanding that they will close or be overhauled if results do not improve. << See full story