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Bipartisanship, Cleveland Style

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In June, most school districts, administrators, teachers and the communities they serve are focused on graduation, and with good reason. In every community, it's a cause for celebration because the work being recognized is so vital, so important for our very democracy, that we should celebrate it. And when that happens, in most districts, they're not spending a whole lot of time thinking about next year, much less the years beyond that. In Cleveland, Ohio, school district officials, teachers and others will celebrate what they've accomplished this year, but graduation is only a small part of it. What's to come is potentially unlike anything we've seen before and something the rest of the nation should notice.

A couple of weeks back, an extraordinary deal was brokered in the Ohio statehouse. A plan to reform public education in Cleveland arrived at the statehouse with the hard-won backing of an astonishing cross- sector, bipartisan coalition. The plan's designers included the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, a coalition of high performing charter schools, the local chamber of commerce, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and leaders from the largest philanthropic foundations in Northeast Ohio. And the plan they brought to the General Assembly was supported by the Cleveland Teachers Union and Ohio's Republican Governor John Kasich (who, just last year, failed in an attempt to crush the teachers union and other public sector unions). Oh yeah, and there was also a bipartisan group of state legislators, along with the overwhelming majority of the all-Democratic City Council of Cleveland, the Democratic Cuyahoga County Executive. And it almost stalled. I'll explain why in a moment.

First though, take a moment and notice that coalition building that happened. It's the work of a few people who have been at it for a long time. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, now in his second term, came up through City Council, and has long been thought of as a good manager, a strong behind the scenes guy, but not the kind of person anyone would single out as an extraordinary model of leadership. That assessment might be changing. After years of watching district leaders hamstrung by the inflexibility of the union contract, he used the mayoral control won by former Mayor Michael White for what it was designed for--hiring the right leader and backing him up. His first go at that didn't work out so well, but the new schools CEO is probably the hardest working, most genuine and unassuming big-city schools leader you could ask for. Jackson and his schools CEO, Eric Gordon, pulled together the people they've gotten really good at working with, met behind closed doors and came out with a plan that wound up becoming a warning shot across the union's bow. At the time, I criticized the mayor for what I saw as a lack of transparency that would doom his best intentions. I talked to him about it for a podcast we were putting together. He was completely unapologetic, (just click here, and start listening about 13 minutes in). I've got to say, his conviction and what's happened since has totally won me over.

Also, none of this ever would have happened without the focused and hands on assistance from local philanthropy. The nation's oldest community foundation along with the George Gund Foundation have been funding experimental and innovative schools for years now, in ways that created an environment in which the public could imagine schools functioning differently and more effectively.

And then there's the Breakthrough Schools, a collaborative effort of three totally different models of charter schools, one focused on teaching citizenship, one on the entrepreneurial spirit, and a third that incorporates local senior citizens as tutors and mentors for elementary school students. These schools are all sponsored by the Cleveland Metro School District.

The through-line in all of this is collaboration, or, more precisely, collaboration where you can, and political pressure where you must. In this case, that pressure was applied to the union. I said above that I criticized the mayor for not including the union and teachers in the crafting of his plan. His reply: "I wanted to get something done." And he's got a point. Teacher unions throughout the country have had ample opportunity to participate in reforming struggling public education systems and public schools. For a variety of reasons -- competing priorities, antagonistic relations with district and political leaders, love affair with the status quo -- many haven't. In Ohio, we seem to be reaching a turning point, and that can only be a good thing. And in a place where as a recent district communication put it, "for every 100 students entering ninth grade in Cleveland, 63 will graduate high school, 34 of those graduates will enroll in college, and just seven will graduate with a bachelor's degree."

So why, then, in the midst of all this collaboration and coalition building did the General Assembly almost hold up Cleveland's best chance at turning around the district? Since the charter movement began, Ohio has had a very lax regulatory stance toward charter schools. Essentially, any registered charter management operator can create a charter school anywhere, with very little oversight. The original reform plan put forward by the mayor and others would have created a new board to establish oversight over charter schools in the city, and would have provided increased local funds to successful schools. Unsuccessful schools would be pressured to improve or close. The board, called the Transformation Alliance, would have other responsibilities, including assessing the quality of all public schools in the city and communicating to parents about which schools are doing the best and which need support.

Despite what you might think -- who wouldn't want good charter schools, right? -- it was the oversight provision that held up the legislative proposal. Some charter operators, apparently, prefer the status quo; that is, they like the lack of oversight and don't mind operating with fewer per-pupil dollars than traditional public schools. They found sympathy for their point of view among the laissez-faire caucus, stalwart free market Republicans willing to buck the governor's leadership. The compromise, though, isn't so bad. Rather than being the gatekeeper to charters in Cleveland, the Transformation Alliance will simply provide recommendations to the Ohio Board of Education, who will make a final decision (whether they'll act on the local recommendation is another story).

The mayor and the community now have their schools plan. They also have five months to make the case to the public -- because they haven't had a successful levy since the mid-1990s, there will be one on the November ballot. That's going to be a big lift, but from what I can see, the community it squarely behind the mayor on this. While the legislature was debating the plan, we hosted a forum about it, and though there are questions, and though it's complicated, you can see people are engaged. Indeed, it's almost all anyone's talking about.