Cleveland Schools Plan Gets Praise of Lawmakers, Scorn Of Teachers

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From left: Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon, State Sen. Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), Sen. Nina Turner (D-Cleveland), Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Rep. Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster) and Rep. Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland) speak at an event to support the Cleveland schools plan.(Photo: Karen Kasler, Ohio Public Radio)
From left: Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon, State Sen. Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), Sen. Nina Turner (D-Cleveland), Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Rep. Ron Amstutz (R-Wooster) and Rep. Sandra Williams (D-Cleveland) speak at an event to support the Cleveland schools plan.(Photo: Karen Kasler, Ohio Public Radio)

The controversial plan to overhaul the Cleveland schools – which includes making big changes among teachers – got a show of bipartisan support today.

But the plan’s critics say it’s a repackaging of ideas that voters soundly rejected months ago.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson says his plan to reshape the Cleveland schools is not about politics – it’s about quality education.

“It has nothing to do with whether or not you’re a good Democrat or a good Republican, whether you support unions or you don’t support unions, whether you support charters or public schools. This is about how do we educate our children.”

Jackson says the district has been making progress, but it’s too slow, and the schools will soon need to plug a 65 million dollar hole. His plan includes some ideas that some see as radical.

It would allow the sharing of levy money with charter schools that are sponsored by or work closely with the district. It would create a governing body that would set and monitor standards which would be exempt from sunshine laws requiring open records and open meetings.

And it would make big changes in contracts with teachers’ unions. The district could extend the school day or the school year without getting union approval. No tenure would be offered for new teachers, and contracts will be limited to two years. Seniority would no longer be the key factor in deciding layoffs or callbacks. And if a teacher gets the district’s lowest rating of “ineffective” two years in a row, that teacher could be fired.

The plan has the strong support of Gov. John Kasich and other Republicans. But some of those ideas bother Rep. Sandra Williams, a Democrat of Cleveland, who offered qualified support for the plan, but says she hasn’t agreed to co-sponsor the plan in the House.

“I believe that the mayor’s plan has merit. I agree with about 70% of it. There are only a few things that I do not agree with.”

But one of the state’s two teachers unions has many things that it finds problematic in the mayor’s plan, and is very worried that if it’s approved, other school districts will want the same changes. Melissa Cropper is president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, and she says that will destroy collective bargaining rights of teachers around the state.

“I find it very ironic that they stand up there and say how important it is to involve the teachers voice, but they don’t have a teacher standing up there with them. I think that makes a statement right there.”

Other critics of the plan – including House Minority Leader Armond Budish of Beachwood in suburban Cleveland – say it amounts to a partial retread of Senate Bill 5, the collective bargaining reform law that was soundly rejected by voters last fall. Jackson, who supported the repeal of Senate Bill 5, says those who are concerned about the plan including some of the ideas from it shouldn’t be.

“I am opposed to anything that eliminates collective bargaining. But I’m also opposed to collective bargaining standing in the way of educating children.”

Cleveland Democratic Sen. Nina Turner was also an opponent of Senate Bill 5. But she supports Jackson’s plan.

“To allow anybody to drag this debate totally about Senate Bill 5 is the wrong way to look at it. We should start with what is in the best interest of Cleveland’s kids, and then work from that. And absolutely – we definitely have to be fair to the teachers. So I understand their concerns, but that’s not the position that I’m starting at.”

Jackson says if someone has better ideas than the ones he’s come up with, he’d like to hear them. Cropper with the OFT says the Cleveland Teachers Union has a plan that she says improves student outcomes without taking away collective bargaining rights of teachers.

“Let’s work this out. We don’t need legislation to make it happen – we just need to all be together at the same table to make it happen. If they want to go through with Senate Bill 5 language, then we’ll go through with Senate Bill 5-like efforts to stop it.”

But Jackson says that he won’t accept any plan that involves incremental changes – because he says the community won’t be willing to approve a levy request unless there is major change in the Cleveland schools.

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