Monday, June 18, 2012
Jackson gets school reforms; can he pass a levy?
The mayor got the teacher’s union to support his reform plan this spring, and on Wednesday his plan made it through the state legislature. A lot of people are in the mood to congratulate him.
But his third political challenge lies ahead, and it's the toughest of all. This fall, he’ll try to convince city voters to approve a new levy to shore up the district’s dwindling finances.
Jackson has shown great political skills this year, steering his plan past obstacles on the left and the right. He got tough with the teacher’s union, warning them they could either negotiate or see reforms pass without their input. That’s how he got the historic agreement to lay off teachers based on performance, not seniority, starting in summer 2013.
Then Jackson negotiated with Republican lawmakers over his plan to hold charter schools accountable. The mayor had to compromise, since the legislature, awash in donations from charter-school operators, was not going to give him a veto over new independent schools coming to town. But the bill creates additional oversight for charters operating in the city, which is important, since the state’s oversight is so weak.
Now Cleveland taxpayers will be asked to sacrifice. Jackson’s next step is to go for a new school levy this November. He and school officials haven’t said how much money they’ll ask for, but it’ll probably be a lot. The district faces yet another deficit this year. There’s even talk about asking for two levies, one for repairing schools, one for operating them day-to-day.
The district’s finances are being squeezed from all sides. Cleveland’s population keeps declining. Students who leave the district for charter schools take state money with them. The state is eliminating a business tax that used to be a source of school revenue. The cries to reform Ohio’s unconstitutional school-funding method go unheeded. Clevelanders who argue the district needs extra financial help run into arguments that Cleveland already gets more than its share.
Clevelanders haven’t approved a school levy since 2001, the year the East High gym’s roof collapsed and the need to replace and renovate schools became self-evident. The city hasn’t passed a levy for regular operations since 1996. Voters rejected a 2005 attempt by a two-to-one margin.
Passing a levy will be harder than ever. Cleveland is still very poor, and residents are still suffering from the downturn. Many Clevelanders don’t have a connection to the schools anymore. Even many public-school parents may be reluctant to give more money to schools that fail so many kids.
That’s why Jackson insisted he needed the school reforms in hand before he asked for more tax money. He felt he had to show voters a plan for improving them. Soon, the reforms will give the district broader powers to take strong action with failing schools. If the district keeps shrinking, it’ll shed the poorest-performing teachers, rather than most of its young talent.
Jackson’s reforms also include sharing levy money with the highest-performing charter schools. The high-minded idea is to embrace school choice, partner with successful charters and share strategies with them. But practically, it should help convince charter-school parents to support the levy.
Can Jackson pull it off? He will need all the help he can get. That means a lot of levy-campaign contributions from the corporate and foundation leaders who helped create the reform plan. It means an engaged, organized union ready to overcome its mixed feelings about the coming changes. It means getting the public, especially parents, to put faith in reforms that won’t be implemented until 2013.
Above all, it means the mayor will have to appeal for continued trust from the voters who reelected him by more than 2-to-1 in 2009.
Passing a school levy will make dealing with the teacher’s union and the Republican legislature look easy. So it’s way too early to congratulate Jackson. He’ll be tested like never before this fall.