For real Cleveland school reform, slow down, plan well, fix school funding
The Plain Dealer - March 25, 2012
Recent opinion pieces published in The Plain Dealer have urged Clevelanders and state policymakers to support Mayor Frank Jackson’s school plan. U.S. cities struggle with education, and Cleveland is no exception — change is needed.
But what kind of change? Quick change seems to be a top priority for many. As Brent Larkin wrote last week: “Jackson’s plan might not work. But given the state of Cleveland schools, not to try something dramatic borders on criminal.”
As a parent of a child attending a Cleveland school and as a journalist and researcher who’s been paying close attention to public schools for a dozen years, I have to disagree with Larkin’s hyperbole. Working for smart, collaborative progress is better than trying to implement fast, desperate change without careful review. The plan itself touts the district’s partnership with teachers on a new evaluation system and a new approach to teacher compensation — this is serious, systemic improvement.
There are positive elements in the mayor’s plan, including an effort to exert local control over publicly funded, privately operated charter schools, school-level autonomy, new efforts to boost pre-K education, college or career readiness and technology investments. The goal of creating a more responsive, flexible system is also on target.
But questions remain. Many of the plan’s defenders seem willing to accept it without thoughtful debate. Although “community engagement” is promised, it’s clear that parents, residents and teachers have not been included. Teachers, who will be responsible for carrying out reforms in the classroom, were asked for input only after the mayor announced his plan. As it has in the past, union leadership Thursday offered substantive ideas for change.
This dialogue is important because research shows that school reform rarely works without a strong measure of buy-in from those most affected.
We should be asking what’s already working and why. The plan touts the successes of 37 top-rated charter and district schools in Cleveland. But a quick analysis shows, that as a group, these schools enroll substantially fewer special-needs and low-income students than do Cleveland schools overall, which means their success is due, at least in part, to these demographic differences. As good as they may be, creating more “niche” schools cannot be a primary solution to what ails education in Cleveland. Also in the plan are steps to “refocus” and “repurpose” lower-performing schools; this kind of effort has gained little traction where implemented.
Becky Gaylord wrote last week of the success at Campus International. We seriously considered sending our 6-year-old there, but in the end chose Near West Intergenerational School, a new charter that’s a 10-minute walk from our house and was mentioned as a model in the mayor’s plan.
The problem is, neither of these schools serves student populations that represent the socioeconomic reality of the city of Cleveland. Campus International, for example, has recruited and enrolled a significant population from the suburbs. And Near West limits class size to 16 — a big draw for us, but difficult to maintain in a cash-strapped district.
The proposed Transformation Alliance would be responsible for making sure low-performing charter operators don’t open here, and for getting information about good schools to parents. These are great goals, but putting these powers in the hands of a private, closed-door group is an unfortunate step away from transparency and accountability. The mayor already appoints the school board to represent the community — better to increase capacity at the board level and give it these new responsibilities.
The mayor’s plan includes steps to achieve financial sustainability through efficiency and flexibility, outsourcing and reduction of labor costs — do we really think cutting salaries and firing teachers will fix our schools? The district also wants to close schools, seek voter approval of a levy and get more grant funding. But it’s not clear how the district will become more stable, given the $65 million shortfall forecast for the coming school year and the additional $40 million expected the following year. As it is, it would take more than a 10-mill levy to cover just the first year’s gap.
In fact, as important as having a solid plan is, the mayor’s proposal completely avoids the elephant in the classroom. Ohio no longer has a school-funding system — schools get what’s left over. Across the state, the responsibility for funding schools is being pushed to the local level. School districts lost $1.8 billion in funding for the current two-year budget, and they are going to local voters to make up the difference. Districts rich and poor are affected, but this will exacerbate already-existing inequities.
Mayor Jackson, school leaders, the corporate community — and the rest of us — should be demanding that the governor and state legislators take action to develop a new funding system that will work for all Ohio schools. Over the past 10 years, Ohio has blown a $2 billion-a-year hole in its revenue stream by continuously cutting business and income taxes. If we want to build a stronger Ohio that works for everyone, we need to start with adequate revenue and a better school funding system. Otherwise, all the best intentions of Mayor Jackson’s plan won’t lead to the change we need in Cleveland.
Van Lier is a Cleveland parent and education researcher at Policy Matters Ohio.