When Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson introduced a plan in February to seek permission from the state legislature to implement certain reforms in the 44,000-student district, the city’s teachers’ union could have balked.
After all, public-sector unions around the state already felt battered by Senate Bill 5, passed in March 2011 and championed by Republican Gov. John Kasich, that curtailed collective bargaining rights. Months later, in November, Senate Bill 5 was defeated in a statewide referendum. And Jackson’s plan, called the Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools, was intentionally developed without initial union input. It seemed like another attempt to cut unions out of the discussion.
Jackson “didn’t include the union at the front end,” said Eric Gordon, the chief executive officer of the mayoral-controlled school district, in an Education Week interview. Instead, the mayor went to the business and local philanthropic community first, Gordon said, for fear that any major changes would be nipped in the bud.
David Quolke, the president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, said he wasn’t surprised that the union was left out of the early planning. “It was in line with what we had seen before,” he said.
But the plan that was eventually passed in June bore the marks of both the mayor and the union. While Chicago continues to be roiled by a teachers’ strike, Cleveland leaders say they managed to come up with an agreement that both sides can live with. The Wall Street Journal described the final agreement as a “school fix without a fight,” but both sides agree that the process was not always that smooth.
“It actually didn’t start off as collaboratively as it ended,” Gordon acknowledged.
Cleveland has faced both academic and financial struggles. According to the plan’s introduction, despite some bright spots of achievement, in 2010-11, more than half its traditional public and charter schools were in academic watch or academic emergency, the two lowest of six categories given by the state to schools and districts. On the 2011 Ohio Achievement Assessments, 43 percent of the district’s 5th graders tested proficient in reading and 30 percent tested proficient in mathematics. For every 100 students entering 9th grade in Cleveland, 63 will graduate from high school.
Jackson planned to address those issues by asking the state to give him more power to create and close down charter schools. He also wanted the authority to eliminate seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs and promotions.
Once the plan was on the table, he invited the Cleveland Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, to offer what the union believed to be improvements. With union assistance, the transformation plan does not dismiss seniority, but it does allow low-performing teachers to be the first to be laid off, even if they have tenure, as opposed to a teacher who has a higher performance rating but does not have tenure. And half of a teacher’s evaluation will be tied to student test scores.
The mayor “never veered from the substance” of his plan, Gordon said. Instead, “he kept challenging people on form.” If the union representatives did not like the suggestions in the plan, the mayor kept attention on how those parts could be improved, Gordon said.
From the point of view of the union, Quolke said his members chose collaboration when the mayor offered it. The original proposal was to scrap the entire teachers’ contract and start from scratch.
“We ended up making a very bad piece of legislation into something we could live with,” Quolke said. And, while the union would have been willing to walk away from the table had it not seen any movement, there was enough of a chance at compromise to make a partnership possible, Quolke said. The legislative changes that Jackson was seeking as part of the transformation plan would likely have passed with or without union participation, he said.
Cleveland and Chicago are not the only cities wrestling with such issues, said Charles Barone, the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; New Haven, Conn.; and New York are among many communities that are trying different school improvement ideas. “I don’t think it’s easy to do anywhere,” said Barone, noting that Karen Lewis, the leader of the Chicago union, and Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor, both have strong, confrontational personalities.
Gordon said part of the Cleveland plan’s success is that the mayor was seeking changes through legislation, as opposed to trying to negotiate through an existing contract. Trying to change an existing contract may be part of the problems that Chicago is experiencing, he said. In contrast to that view, Quolke said that scrapping Cleveland’s contract entirely would have been a bad move. “So often, [legislators] are interested in getting things done quickly, and not getting them done correctly,” he said.
But despite some “tense and testy” moments, the different groups in Cleveland were able to work together.
“I hope what people take away from this is that you shouldn’t involve teachers at the end of the process. You should involve them at the beginning,” Quolke said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.