Ohio's big cities are rapidly becoming national school reform leaders

This week I am joining members of CEE-Trust for a conversation on some of the nation’s most promising city-based school reform efforts. CEE-Trust is a coalition of 33 reform organizations like MindTrust in Indianapolis, Mayor Karl Dean in Nashville, Charter School Partners in Minneapolis, New Schools for New Orleans, and the Rogers Family Foundation in Oakland. Fordham is a founding member, and this is one of my absolutely favorite groups to spend time with because the people involved are leading implementers and practitioners of school reform. They are all doers.

In years past I always left the CEE-Trust meetings wishing more were happening in Ohio’s cities. But, this year is different. Ohio’s big cities are rapidly becoming leaders in school reform. In fact, I’d argue there is no state with three major cities doing more than what is happening in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. Consider the following.

CLEVELAND

In early 2012 Mayor Frank Jackson (who appoints the school board) unveiled his “Plan for Transforming Schools.” The Jackson Plan required changes to state law and in July 2012 Governor Kasich signed House Bill 525, which gave the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and its superintendent Eric Gordon new flexibilities to deal with the city’s long-suffering schools. Key elements of the plan included:

  • Keeping high-performing and specialized teachers during layoffs by making tenure and seniority only secondary factors in those personnel decisions.
  • Paying teachers on a “differentiated” salary schedule based on performance, special skills and duties, as opposed to years of service and education level.
  • Lengthening school day and school year.
  • Sharing local tax dollars with high-performing charters.
  • Replacing failing schools with new high quality charters and district magnet schools.
  • Attracting, retaining and developing excellent new teachers and school leaders.

Cleveland voters backed the school reform plan by passing a 15-mill tax in November, which provided the district with $85 million annually with high-performing charters receiving about $5.7 million of that. Finally, just last month the Cleveland Teachers Union and the Cleveland School Board agreed to a contract that tied pay raises and layoffs to teacher performance, not seniority or advanced degrees. The agreement also lengthened instruction time for students.

COLUMBUS

Mayor Michael Coleman launched the “Columbus Education Commission” in December 2012. In late April, the 25 member Commission (a who’s who of Columbus business, philanthropic and community leaders, including the head of the Columbus Education Association) unanimously approved 55 recommendations to improve the city’s schools. The Commission’s recommendations include:

  • Creating a public/private partnership to spend $50 million (a blend of public and private funds) to improve schools in Columbus and make the city a magnet for education talent (akin to MindTrust in Indianapolis).
  • Hiring an “education director” in the mayor’s office who would become a non-voting member of the school board.
  • Providing pre-K programs to every family in the district.
  • Creating a new entity to develop and deploy technology throughout the district.
  • Making local levy dollars available to high-performing charters (like Cleveland).
  • Having the mayor become a charter school authorizer (joining Indianapolis as the only other city with mayoral authorizing authority).

Some of the Commission’s recommendations, including mayoral sponsorship of charter schools, require changes to state law. In May, House Bill 167 was introduced and it has received bipartisan support and passed out of the House Education Committee by a 19-3 vote. The bill is expected to make it through the House and Senate in record time and Governor Kasich has promised to sign it.

CINCINNATI

In 2010, Cincinnati became the first big city in Ohio to receive an “Effective” (B) rating from the Ohio Department of Education. The district received Effective ratings again in 2011 and 2012. The successes in Cincinnati have been so eye-popping that The Atlantic ran a piece on the city in May entitled “How to Turn an Urban School District Around – Without Cheating.” Reform efforts in Cincinnati are different to those being undertaken in Cleveland and Columbus in that the district is leading the reform charge. Not the mayor. But, in all three cities the business community, philanthropy and numerous community partners have not only supported the school reforms, but have worked with educators to help drive them.

Cincinnati’s hard-charging superintendent Mary Ronan and her team have befuddled some reformers by turning around the district’s 16 lowest-performing elementary schools, some of which had languished for decades. Key to the success has been building level leadership and a focus on improving teacher quality. As in Cleveland and Columbus, the local teachers union has been a key ally in the overall reform strategy, but new schools (Carpe Diem and SEED Academy) and new talent (Teach for America) have also been welcomed by the district and city as important allies. 

Ohio’s cities are rapidly becoming leaders in the charge to improve education for all students. This is a story still very much in progress, and there are significant academic challenges in each of these cities to yet overcome, but those interested in city-based school reform efforts should pay close attention to what’s happening in the Buckeye State.

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