Stress Test

Cleveland's school levy is big, but overdue. Business and labor, left and right, have united around unprecedented reforms. Will taxpayers join in?

Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon picks up a small flip-book from his desk. It's meant to teach kids mental discipline through emotional awareness, but as Gordon works for school reform and a new tax levy, he's been using it too.

"So today I was tired when I flipped my card," Gordon says, holding up a card with a child's tired face on it. "As the day goes on, I might feel different — I might be feeling delighted now."

Of course Gordon feels tired. This year, he and his allies have been working hard. They've defied the inertia that usually slows or kills education reform in Cleveland and everywhere else. They've enacted an ambitious plan to shut down failing schools, encourage innovative new ones and change how Cleveland evaluates and pays teachers.

But Gordon is unlikely to flip to his "delighted" card until Election Night, Nov. 6, and only then if Clevelanders vote for a big new tax levy to stop the schools' downward budget spiral.

Issue 107, a 15 mill property tax, would cost the owner of a $50,000 house about $230 a year for four years. It's a lot for homeowners in a poor city battered by a foreclosure crisis. But it's overdue. The Cleveland schools, starved of money for years, have right-sized and reinvented. They're asking the public to fund an ambitious strategy that's already producing results. Without more funding, they won't move forward, they'll fall behind.

"We cannot keep waiting for the state or the federal government to fix education in Cleveland," Gordon says. "We need to come together as a community and fix [it]."

In the past 12 months, almost every leader and major interest group in Cleveland has tried to do exactly that. Last November, Gordon and Mayor Frank Jackson began unprecedented meetings with representatives of the Cleveland and Gund foundations, the business community and the city's best charter schools. Their reforms, dubbed the Cleveland Plan, will allow Gordon to dissolve and reorganize failing schools, fire poorly performing teachers and change the length of the school day and year. The district will share levy money with good charter schools and set better standards for new charters. Raises and layoffs will be determined mostly by a new evaluation system for teachers instead of seniority.

Reforms like that have died on paper in cities and states across the country. In Chicago this fall, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, tried to tie teachers' pay to their performance and had to back down after a two-week strike.

But Gordon and Jackson got it all done. In a feat of pressure and persuasion, negotiation and compromise, they convinced the Republican-dominated state legislature and the Cleveland Teachers Union to sign on. Most of the plan goes into effect next year.

"We are beginning to show the signs of [being] the first city in the United States where everyone is committed to figuring out how to do this," he says.

Now, it's Cleveland taxpayers' turn to join in.

If voters say yes to Issue 107, the district can build on its greatest successes in the last several years: its 14 new and innovative schools, ranging from the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine to five single-gender academies. The Cleveland and Gund foundations have helped fund the startup costs of many of those schools, which create new curriculums and school cultures from scratch.

These "islands of excellence," as Gordon calls them, are already showing that a better education is possible, even in neighborhoods wounded by poverty and broken families. From New Tech East on East Tech High School's campus on East 55th Street, to the Kenneth W. Clement Boys Leadership Academy in Collinwood, the new schools are moving the needle, getting better test results than conventional schools nearby.

"Are we getting the results we want?" says Gordon. "No, we have a lot of work to do. But we can show evidence that engaging families in different ways can get different and better results."

Now the question is how to get even better results in schools across the city. Right now, the district is opening a couple of innovative schools a year, and it's mostly choosing new models based on which ideas grant money will fund. If the levy passes, Gordon says innovative schools can blossom across the city, based on what parents and the community want most.

But if the levy fails, more than a chance to innovate will be lost.

The Cleveland schools' rolling budget crisis of the last few years has proven false the old saw that money doesn't matter when you're trying to improve education. Because voters haven't approved a levy to fund day-to-day school operations since 1996, and state funding was slashed last year, the district faces an annual blood-letting ritual. It lays off about 500 employees every year, from teachers to security guards to child psychologists.

Some of those layoffs were necessary to right-size the district after families left for charter, private and suburban schools. But two numbers prove the district is now cutting bone, not fat. This year, the school day for kids in grades K-8 was cut from 6½ hours to 5 hours and 40 minutes. Class sizes in grades four through 12 now average 40 kids.

"We already know the consequences of not passing a levy," Gordon says. "We've been living those consequences for at least the last three years."

Students' test results are showing the strain. The share of Cleveland kids who passed Ohio's achievement tests dropped slightly last year, and the district met none of the state's report card standards. That'll likely put the district in "academic emergency," a failing grade, and lead to oversight by a state commission. "If we need any reminder of why we can't cut our way to success, we've got it," Gordon says.

If the levy fails, the downward spiral will continue: 500 more teachers will go in 2013 to cover part of a $50 million deficit. The new reforms will become merely a way to manage the district's decline, the teacher evaluation system a tool to manage annual layoffs. Parents will choose other schools with longer hours. Innovation will move too slowly to make a difference to most Cleveland schoolkids.

I live in Cleveland, and on Nov. 6, I'm voting for the school levy. Living in the city means not giving up on it, not giving in to the voices of frustration and despair that say decline is inevitable and change impossible.

A school levy is never just about the kids. It's also about the adults in charge. The adults behind this levy proposal have done just about everything we could reasonably ask of them.

If Cleveland parents are dissatisfied with the results they're getting from the schools and the pace of change, Jackson and Gordon are just as unsatisfied. That's why they've pushed so hard for the reforms. The mayor took a political risk to get his reforms enacted, allying himself with Republican Gov. John Kasich and driving a hard bargain with the teachers' union.

For any Clevelander tired of the revolving door of charismatic school superintendents, Gordon is the antidote. He is not the commanding guy in a nice suit who bails when the going gets tough, but the smart guy in shirtsleeves who worked his way up. He combines deep knowledge of the district with an insistence that the schools must change and that old rules have to go.

When a mistake is revealed, Gordon is nimble, not defensive. Consider his reaction to the state auditor's October report that Cleveland was not keeping a paper trail to track transient students' withdrawals and transfers. Gordon immediately had the district change its record-keeping and moved to set up a panel to oversee and improve it.

A tax increase of $230 on a $50,000 home, or $460 on a $100,000 home, is a burden, no question. But Cleveland has a lower property tax rate than almost all of its suburban neighbors. In fact, its school taxes are the second lowest in Cuyahoga County.

The levy's opponents don't have an answer to classroom overcrowding, shrunken school days or the district's annual talent drain. They say they won't support a levy because Cleveland remains a victim of Ohio's unfair, unconstitutional school-funding system.

It's true that the state has abandoned its responsibility to fix it. But we've been waiting 15 years for a fix. Cleveland can't wait another 15 years, or five, or one, to take action on its own. A "no" vote on the levy won't budge the state legislature; it'll just hurt Cleveland. In fact, legislators will be even less likely to support a community that won't support itself.

If the schools lacked strong leadership and a credible plan to get better, then it might make sense for voters to reject a levy and demand a new approach. But to say no to the schools when the district's innovations are showing results, and an unprecedented coalition has united around its efforts, would be strangling the baby in the crib.

Share this story: