Ohio’s controversial Senate Bill 5 may have died at the polls last November, but its spirit lives on in a new proposal to save the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
Four months ago, Big Labor celebrated the demise of SB 5, a law that would have significantly curtailed the collective bargaining privileges of the state’s public employees.
Now, the Democratic mayor of Cleveland is asking state lawmakers to allow the Cleveland school district to impose school policies and work rules – such as implementing merit pay and longer school years – instead of bargaining over them with the school employee unions.
The SB 5-like freedoms are central to “Cleveland’s Plan for Transforming Schools,” which Mayor Frank Jackson unveiled in early February. (The school district has been controlled by a series of mayors – instead of a school board – for more than a decade.)
The Cleveland schools are nearing insolvency, and Jackson wants to enact wide-ranging reforms as a sign of good faith before asking taxpayers and the business community to support a new school tax levy in the fall.
Jackson’s reform plan hinges on exemptions from collective bargaining, which in turn hinges on convincing Ohio’s *General Assembly *to write and pass special legislation that only affects the Cleveland school district.
Fearing another SB 5-style showdown, supporters of Jackson’s plan are downplaying its similarities to the defunct legislation. Meanwhile, the president of the *Cleveland Teachers Union *has described the mayor’s school overhaul plan as “Senate Bill 5 on steroids for Cleveland teachers only.”
Gov. John Kasich has promised to “spend every breath I have to get (this plan) done,” but other Republican leaders want guarantees of Democratic air cover before engaging Big Labor in another legislative battle.
State Sen. Peggy Lehner, Republican chairwoman of the *Senate Education Committee*, tells EAG it’s crucial that any efforts be supported by Cleveland-area Democrats.
“Some Democrats do need to join hands with us to make this happen,” Lehner says.
Those prospects don’t look too promising.
One high-profile Cleveland Democrat, State *Sen. Nina Turner*, has called the mayor’s plan “Senate Bill 5 Lite,” but has promised to keep an open mind about it, according to Cleveland.com.
Any bipartisan consensus must come soon. According to Lehner, the special legislation would have to pass the General Assembly before its summer recess in June, in order to affect November’s tax levy.
‘We need to get something done’
The Cleveland school district is facing an existential crisis: declining enrollment (down 29,000 students since 2001), huge deficits (a $65 million shortfall for next year), low levels of student achievement, and one of the most restrictive and prohibitive teacher contracts in the nation.
“We need to get something done,” Mayor Jackson said according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “We’ve been in perpetual discussion about a lot of things. Our sense of urgency is such that something has to happen in a systemic way and it has to happen now.”
In his overhaul plan, Jackson says Cleveland schools are “mired in bureaucratic, outdated and cumbersome work rules” that are based in union contracts that dictate everything from “start/end times, the length and frequency of staff meetings, the school calendar, assignment of personnel, etc.”
Jackson says the school district must have more autonomy and flexibility in order to survive.
That means scrapping teacher seniority as the sole factor in determining layoffs or placements; instituting merit pay to attract highly skilled teachers and principals; requiring union contracts to be written from scratch during each negotiation process (which would end the practice of carrying items over from contract to contract); and empowering principals of highly effective schools to make spending, scheduling and curriculum decisions.
Jackson’s plan also treats charter schools as equal members of Cleveland’s learning community, and trumpets them as part of the district’s “portfolio” of schools. Charters “that partner with the district” would share the district’s tax revenue, as well as its food and curriculum services, reports The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Most of the plan’s opposition rests with the teacher unions and their surrogates in the *Democratic Party*.
“This is not an education plan, but instead a plan to fire and sort teachers,” writes CTU President David Quolke.
Though Jackson’s plan would only affect Cleveland schools and the Cleveland Teachers Union, the Ohio Education Association opposes any efforts to resurrect portions of SB 5, reports the Dayton Daily News.
The unions fear the very thing many reformers hope for: If Cleveland schools flourish after being exempted from the shackles of collective bargaining, many other districts will be inspired to seek those same freedoms.
“I’m counting on Cleveland to deliver the goods,” Gov. Kasich said in his recent *State of the State* address.
“The mayor of Cleveland … and the business community … are really committed to very comprehensive and unbelievable reform, and we can evolve as Republicans and Democrats in this endeavor,” Kasich said. “We can change urban education in Ohio and change urban education in America. And that is worth fighting for and risking for.”
Senate Bill 5 may have gone down in flames, but its principles constitute the foundation for rebuilding Cleveland schools.
Like the old saying goes, “You can’t stop an idea whose time has come.”