An unlikely alliance of urban superintendents and teachers’ union presidents is slowly emerging as an influential player in education in Ohio and could become a model for similar networks nationwide.
The Ohio 8 Coalition gives labor and management leaders from the state’s big- city districts a safe place to share ideas, discuss common concerns, and try to influence policy on public education, participants say.
“In today’s educational funding and policy environment, we have more common concerns than we have differences,” said Francine Lawrence, the president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “There’s tremendous potential for the coalition.”
The 18-month-old alliance, believed to be the first such labor-management group specifically aimed at urban education, is made up of representatives from Ohio’s largest city districts: Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.
Most participants agree that the gatherings have been meaningful. Representing more than 300,000 students and roughly 20,000 teachers, the coalition could be difficult for policymakers and politicians to ignore, although there’s a sense that the alliance’s potential power remains untapped.
Participants acknowledge that the group must work diligently not to become an empty mouthpiece. That’s not likely to occur, however, since the Ohio 8 Coalition’s strict, agreed-upon ground rules require that superintendents and union presidents cannot send substitutes to the private meetings. If someone can’t attend, that seat remains empty.
So far, members have rearranged their schedules for the meetings, which are held in cities around the state.
“We’re not taking seconds. It’s the people who have the decision authority in their organization,” explained William Wendling, the coalition’s part-time executive director and a former chief of communications for the Cleveland public schools.
When issues are discussed, the participants can speak frankly and on point because they don’t have to check with someone else about their districts’ views, Mr. Wendling noted. “We cut to the chase,” he said.
While the unions and the districts share some of the costs, the bulk of the bill for the network’s staffing and other needs is supported by foundations.
The Ohio 8 Coalition was born of the common need among urban districts to grapple with proposed changes in the state’s accountability legislation, not to mention the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.
The Cleveland Foundation and the Cincinnati- based KnowledgeWorks Foundation helped organize the coalition’s first meeting, in the fall of 2001. William McKersie, a senior program officer for education at the Cleveland Foundation, said it was vital to gather the traditional adversaries around the same table for a common cause: improving education.
Today, Mr. McKersie said, there’s an unprecedented level of trust among members during the meetings, which are held quarterly and are closed to the media.
“These are heavy-duty public actors,” he stressed. “They don’t get a lot of other times to do this.”
Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the chief executive officer of the Cleveland schools, has regular breakfast meetings with Richard A. DeColibus, the president of the Cleveland Federation of Teachers, to discuss instructional policy. Those conversations, in fact, led the pair to host the coalition’s first meeting, in Cleveland, to try to encourage other such relationships throughout the state.
Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who co-chairs the coalition with the Columbus Education Association’s president, John Grossman, called the group “fabulous.” While members disagree, she said, it is ideal to have time when the district and union heads can focus their energy on topics of shared concern. She added that the meetings are “so damn validating, in this work that can be so isolationist.”
Ms. Lawrence of the Toledo union agreed that an alliance between the superintendents and the union presidents, once considered foes, is now possible because their common concerns outstrip the rigid positions both sides once took.
Coalition members tackle such topics as the ongoing school funding lawsuit, teacher quality and the achievement gaps between students of various races and ethnic groups. They’ve also hosted discussions with Susan Tave Zelman, the state superintendent of public instruction, and Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents 58 urban districts. The group plans to meet with federal lawmakers and education officials in Washington next month.
A Voice in Policymaking
In the meantime, the Ohio 8 Coalition is in the midst of its first lobbying test. Alliance members attended a meeting of the Ohio state board of education last month to discuss their concerns about new mandatory state report cards and the accountability system.
While the report cards identify test scores for schools and districts, the coalition urged the board to include gains in scores to show districts’ progress over time as well.
In response, the 19-member state board asked the coalition to come up with a proposal to address its concerns and present the plan to the state department of education before the board’s January meeting.
Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s assistant superintendent for policy development, said it’s rare to have six of the eight urban superintendents, along with top union leaders, attend a state board meeting. The coalition gives the education department a place to take questions and hear ideas involving the largest urban districts, he pointed out.
Ms. Byrd-Bennett emphasized that the coalition does not want to be perceived as antagonistic. Instead, she said, members want to “take ownership” over issues for which they will be held accountable.
As the coalition’s efforts move forward, urban educators in other states could and should replicate its model, said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, the Rochester, N.Y., affiliate of the AFT.
Mr. Urbanski, who is a co-director of the Teacher Union Reform Network, a coalition of local unions that is working to expand the role of school labor organizations in educational issues, said the Ohio coalition could become a pivotal player in improving schools. He’s asked members of the coalition to make a presentation at a TURN meeting next month.
The main barrier to establishing similar alliances nationwide is a lack of initiative, Mr. Urbanski said. Although relationships between superintendents and union presidents are sometimes fractious, Mr. Urbanski said it’s a matter of “enlightened self-interest” for labor and management to form such alliances.
In fact, he added: “It may be a matter of survival for urban education.”