Stephen Dyer has prepared this analysis of the Cleveland Plan for the blog at my invitation. The plan has been endorsed by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Dyer is in a good position to review the proposal because he is the Education Policy Fellow at Innovation Ohio, progressive think-tank, and was previously chairman of the committee in the Ohio House of Representatives that oversaw the redesign of the state’s education funding formula. Before that, he was a journalist, which makes him ideally suited to explain what is happening in the city of Cleveland.

As a former legislator, I tend to roll my eyes whenever someone declares they are doing something “bold”. I’ve heard it used for so many different policies that the word has lost nearly all its meaning for me.

So when I heard that a “bold” plan had been devised for public education in the City of Cleveland, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical. Then I read it. Our report on its strengths and weaknesses is located here at Innovation Ohio’s website. Many of the recommendations in our report were taken by the folks in Cleveland. Many were not.

In short, while the plan represented an attempt to address some much needed programming in this deeply depressed and racially segregated city, the plan struck me as a lot like shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic given the budgetary iceberg that has struck Ohio’s educational system recently. As I have said repeatedly, despite some of the plan’s good attributes, without money, they won’t happen.

The plan is designed as much to help pass a massive local property tax levy to offset massive state funding cuts as it is to reform education.

Most of the plan is right out of the free market reform handbook. It closes “failing” schools.  These are defined purely by test scores, as if demographics or any one of a host of other issues don’t cloud those results. It offers up more innovative school designs available for a few children rather than improving innovation for all children. It uses test scores to judge teachers.

The plan also expands the importance of Charter Schools, which in Ohio has a whole different meaning than any other state (I’ll discuss that later), though it created slightly more local oversight of Charters than communities in Ohio previously had. The non-financial portions of the plan dealing with Charters should help create better Charter-Public collaboration. And that’s a positive step, especially in Ohio.

There are some really good ideas, like universal pre-school for all 3 and 4 year olds and early childhood academies to potentially help younger pupils with wraparound services, not to mention some necessary flexibility for the district on disposition of property and other non-academic issues. And the teacher provisions were improved when Cleveland’s teachers were finally consulted. The plan was initially introduced without their input, but, importantly, it has since gained their support.

Missing from the plan’s development, though, was the serious input of the parents of the more than 40,000 Cleveland school children. The plan was driven, instead, by consultants and, primarily, economic panic.

The greatest flaw in this whole plan was nothing done locally, really. It was this: even though the state’s leaders, led by Gov. John Kasich and the Republican General Assembly, lauded the plan (Kasich signed it surrounded by Cleveland school children) and hailed it as a blueprint for future Ohio education reform, they refused to put even a penny into it. There was about a $250 million budget surplus at the state this year, by the way.

Worse than that, the state significantly cut education in Cleveland, and everywhere else, in the most recent biennial budget. Ohio is the only state in the country without a funding formula thanks to this General Assembly, and money for education funding was slashed by $1.8 billion over the previous budget. Cleveland got cut by about $84 million.

So this “bold” plan is once again dependent upon local property taxpayers boldly voting to increase their property tax bill, this time by 50%. That would raise $77 million, about $7 million less than the state cut in this budget. The median income in the Cleveland Municipal School District is a bit more than $22,000, by the way. And these residents are now put in the position of raising their taxes or seeing the wholesale dismantling of their children’s education.

For if the levy fails, the district says, “the schools will face a $50 million deficit next year … will … cut another 700-800 teachers and staff … and will go into fiscal oversight and could be taken over by the State and run at minimum standards.” In addition, a newspaper story said that “the district will also shorten its school day through eighth grade by 50 minutes next school year and cut the number of music, art, library and gym classes for those students as part of the shuffling of staff to handle the layoffs.” The state cuts have forced some Ohio schools to send their Free and Reduced Lunch children home at 1 p.m. with box lunches. 

While some may dispute the effectiveness of the Cleveland Plan, I don’t know of anyone who would dispute that a levy failure would do anything but decimate opportunities for Cleveland’s children.

 Gov. Kasich said if he lived in Cleveland he would vote for it. However, as Governor, he makes about 7 times Cleveland residents’ median income and doesn’t live in Cleveland.

In order to understand the foundational problem with the Cleveland Plan, it’s necessary to look at Ohio’s education funding history.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 set aside sector 16 of every Ohio township (and future American townships) for a “public school”. The idea was so remarkable that Alexis De Tocqueville mentioned in the early 19th Century that “The originality of American civilization was most clearly apparent in the provisions made for public education.”

About 50 years after Ohio became a state, its constitution was written, which charged the state government with establishing a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. About 150 years after that, Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled four times that it was the state, not the local school board or mayor (only Cleveland is under mayoral control in Ohio), that bears the responsibility of providing an education for the state’s children.

And it declared four times that the way the state was funding schools violated this constitutional principle because it relied too much on local property taxes (which account for about 60% of Ohio’s non-federal education funding) and didn’t calculate the true cost of education.

Yet despite all this rich history of state responsibility for public education, Ohio’s leaders have worked hard to shirk it. Since the state began the Cleveland voucher program in the mid 1990s, Cleveland Municipal School District has lost more than $1 billion to vouchers and Charter Schools, neither of which have, in general, provided better outcomes for students than the Cleveland Municipal School District. There are pockets of excellence in Cleveland’s Charter Schools, but they are dwarfed by the failures.

Regardless of qualitative issues, in Ohio, Charter School funding is particularly troubling, due to the politically, rather than reform, motivated establishment of Charter Schools in Ohio, which is well-documented in the Akron Beacon Journal series Whose Choice? The largest individual political contributors to Ohio Republicans are Charter School Operators like David Brennan and William Lager.

As a result, the state funding is highly skewed toward Charters. They are funded by taking the per pupil amount it would take to educate a child at their public school of residence, then transferring it to the Charter School, even though Ohio Charter Schools pay teachers, on average, about 60% of what the Public Schools do, don’t bus kids and don’t have to adhere to about 200 different regulations that public schools do.

Meanwhile, the state deducts how much a school district can raise locally from how much the state says they need. So if the state says it costs $10 million to educate your children, but you can raise $5 million locally, the state will only pay you $5 million. Charters, meanwhile, get the full $10 million, ostensibly because they can’t raise local revenue.

This overpayment has meant that statewide, Ohio’s public school children who are not in Charter Schools receive 6.5% less state revenue than the state says they need simply because Charter Schools remove so much money ($771 million last school year) it cuts every other child’s per pupil state aid. In Cleveland, the percentage drop is much less severe (about 1%), yet Cleveland students receive a total of $3 million less every year because of this per pupil cut.

To be fair, a panel of Charter and Public school advocates agreed unanimously in 2010 that children should be funded where they attend school, not through the above-described transfer. But that plan is as dead as a Dodo at this point, given the current state leadership team, which has shown little interest in Charter-Public School collaboration.

The Cleveland Plan, though, allows a limited number of Charter Schools (mostly successful ones that are working collaboratively with the district) to collect local revenue for the first time in Ohio. However, they will do so without any cut in their state revenue, which every public school district has to accept. If applied statewide (a real likelihood given what happened in Cleveland and the current state leadership), Charter Schools would not only receive twice as much per pupil state revenue as public schools, they would receive local revenue on top of that, with no compensatory reduction in state money, like every public school has to take. Think the financial deck isn’t stacked against traditional public education in Ohio?

What’s most amazing is two years ago, Ohio had a new funding model that funded elements of an education we knew from objective, peer reviewed articles would have a positive impact on students. And it committed the state to reduce the need for property taxes in Ohio by about $400 for every $100,000 home.

And what kind of commitment would this have represented by the state? Putting aside a little more than 1% of the state budget each year for 10 years for education.

Cleveland would have received $158 million over the next decade from the state to fund smaller classes in K-3, tutors, all-day kindergarten and other elements we know positively impact students. That’s more than double what Cleveland’s November Levy would raise. Here’s a question: Would Cleveland be doing the Cleveland Plan if the state had followed through on this financial and reform promise? Doubtful.

And that is the test of whether the Plan is a function of reform or desperation.

So while Cleveland’s easy embrace of the “Portfolio” design, which has little objective, peer reviewed evidence behind it suggesting it helps kids, is concerning, it’s important to recognize that in Ohio, school districts like Cleveland have to resort to desperate acts to maintain any sort of public education system for its mostly underprivileged children. They would prefer the imperfect system to none at all.

For in Ohio, they will receive little funding assistance from the state. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson knew this, which is the reason he gave for why he didn’t even ask for any state property tax relief to help defray costs. How sad is it that one of the state’s largest school districts won’t even ask the state for financial help on a major reform package when the state’s constitution says it’s the state’s responsibility to educate children?

To pour more salt in the wound, even when districts pass levies, they aren’t safe from financial strain in Ohio. There is a provision in Ohio law that allows citizens to overturn a local property tax levy, permitting the anti-levy forces a do-over, if you will. A fringe right-wing group is trying to undo a recently passed levy in Westerville this November, with a promise to expand the tactic across the state, if they are successful.

Westerville happens to be the home of Gov. John Kasich, who said he’d vote for Cleveland’s levy.

I wonder whether he’ll support his?

Now that would be bold.


Stephen Dyer is the Education Policy Fellow at Innovation Ohio, a progressive think-tank in Columbus, Ohio.

Prior to joining IO, Dyer was the Chairman of the Ohio House of Representatives committee that oversaw Ohio’s 2009 Education Funding reform, which received the 2010 Frank Newman award from the Education Commission of the States. He remains the only legislator ever honored with a leadership award from the Ohio group that sued the state over its unconstitutional school funding system.

He was an award-winning reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal from 1997 until he joined the Ohio House in 2006.