Cleveland Mayor Gambles a Game Change

Cleveland Mayor Gambles a Game Change


“Change is gonna come” to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District soon if Mayor Frank Jackson has his way.

The mayor recently unveiled “Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools” (see PDF), a blueprint to help the district better serve students and strive toward academic achievement. He presented the plan to Ohio’s Governor John Kasich and his team along with other groups in Cleveland recently. He wanted to rally support for drastic shifts in how children are educated through innovative approaches and thinking.

But the mayor needs a change in law from the state legislature and Governor that allows Cleveland more flexibility in bargaining and working with teachers. With the political environment in Ohio so toxic, it’s a hard sell.  Still, Jackson is banking on Kasich wanting to generate good will with otherwise disagreeable Democrats in the state. The plan is to move teachers around and keep them based on merit instead of seniority. These changes would also allow the district to usher in year-round schooling for grades or areas that need it. Jackson is requesting this change only for the city of Cleveland and not other municipalities in the state.

The urgency of Jackson’s plan is a result of the 54.3 percent graduation rate of students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, one of the lowest among big city school districts. Black students make up 69 percent of the enrollment versus 14.8 percent and 12.2 percent for Whites and Latinos, respectively.

Cleveland is unique because it’s the only district in the state of Ohio that is under mayoral control. The system was put in place in 1998 after years of independent superintendents and a school board who couldn’t get the job done. Now the school district has a Chief Executive Officer, Eric Gordon, and a full board of education. All of the positions are appointed by Mayor Jackson.

One component that Mayor Jackson hopes will make his plan stronger is getting the school district to look at the city’s 60 charter schools differently. Instead of focusing on public versus charter schools, he wants to partner with whomever can educate students the best.

In his plan, Mayor Jackson wants to usher in some of the following changes:

Enact tougher standards on charter schools

Develop a “Cleveland Transformation Alliance,” a board to increase accountability for charter schools

Provide more autonomy to successful schools to make decisions about student schedules, teaching methods, and resources

Close underperforming schools that do not change while opening new schools faster

Mayor Jackson’s plan isn’t radical simply because it goes against long-held ideas about how the public education system in Cleveland should be run. The plan is daring because it is sorely needed and almost overreaches, in a good way, to put student success with teacher success and accountability first.

That’s not to say Jackson is the first to put forward a unique plan. But, he has taken some real risks with this one.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is like many large urban districts across the country. As the city’s dynamics have changed, so have those of the schools. The city’s steady loss of residents has cut down district enrollment by over one-third of where it was less than two decades ago. The district now has about 42,000 students, down from 70,000 in 1996.

David Quolke, the Cleveland Teachers Union president, complained that Jackson did not involve the union during the development of his plan. His point would hold more weight if his group took action when the mayor presented ideas for merit pay last summer, which the teachers’ union was not sold on. Teachers are critical to the process and the union is looking out for their best interests, which is understandable. But, when children are failing and schools are underperforming, a change of direction is needed no matter how long practices have been in place.

The plan sounds promising and could work … if given the chance. The key is for all players in the equation — from the governor to the teachers and everyone in between — to work together to improve things for the Cleveland district. As it stands, the policies in place have not worked.

Leaders in Cleveland have to do something they have never done to get something that is needed for students: success in the classroom. Once all parties check egos and give the plan a try, then they can work through tweaks as student improvement becomes tangible.