School woes in Cleveland, Ohio could soon be our own


I recently went to Cleveland to speak to their City Club, where civic leaders gather every Friday to hear from people in different fields. I wanted to talk with educators as well, so I spoke to the Cleveland Teachers Union on the evening of Feb. 2, and to district administrators on Feb. 3, before addressing the City Club.

After I spoke to the teachers, one came up and introduced herself as a 4th grade teacher. She said: “Thank you for giving me hope. I wish I could give some to my students. They have no hope for the future.” That was the saddest thing I heard on my visit. Cleveland has a level of urban decay that is alarming. Yet its municipal leaders have decided that their chief problem is bad teachers. Surely, I thought, the teachers didn’t cause the flight of employers from the city, the collapse of its manufacturing base, and the massive loss of home mortgages.

But sure enough, Cleveland—and the state of Ohio—plans to attack its economic woes by creating more charter schools and supplying merit pay to teachers able to raise test scores. The leaders want to make it easier to fire teachers and to remove seniority. That’s the mayor’s plan to reform education in Cleveland. Mayor Frank Jackson, like Governor John Kasich, thinks that school choice is the remedy for the education woes of Cleveland and Ohio. So, of course, they both want more charters.

Cleveland has had mayoral control since 1995, so if mayoral control was the answer to urban woes, it should have happened here. It hasn’t. Cleveland is one of the poorest, most racially segregated, and lowest-performing districts in the nation.

Ohio has made a big bet on charter schools. It has an aggressive and entrepreneurial charter sector. About 100,000 of the state’s 1.8 million students are enrolled in charter schools, but charter enrollment is far higher in the state’s “Big 8” urban districts.

The average public school teacher in Cleveland is paid about $66,000, while the average charter school teacher in that city receives about $33,000 a year. That’s a big cost saving for the city and state. Most charters are non-union, and teachers have no job protections or employment rights. It appears that charters have a business plan in which they keep costs low by teacher turnover, low levels of experience, and low salaries.

As in other states, charters in Ohio get no better academic results on average than regular public schools.

The biggest charter chain in Ohio is White Hat Management, a for-profit corporation run by Akron businessman David Brennan. Brennan and his family have contributed millions of dollars to Republican candidates over the past decade. White Hat manages 46 charter schools, both online and free-standing, most in Ohio. State law gives the corporation power to hire and fire board members as well as staff members. Board members in 10 White Hat schools sued the management company to find out where the money was going; management has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding, and the boards said they didn’t know where the money was spent. State law gives the corporation ownership of everything purchased with taxpayer dollars.

Just last week, an Ohio court ruled that White Hat must open its books to individual charter boards, if they request to see them. But at the same time, the company is under no obligation to reveal its spending of public funds to public officials. This really illustrates the essence of privatization. A public entity must open its books to public scrutiny. The legislature could fix this, but it is hard to imagine that it would get tough with one of the state’s major Republican contributors.

There’s nothing special about the performance of this particular charter chain. According to information compiled by NPR in Ohio, “No Ohio White Hat school earned higher than the equivalent of a “C” on the state report cards. Most are in academic watch or emergency.” In the company’s view, the state grades are unimportant; all that matters is that parents are making a choice.

Yet there you have it. The leaders of one of the most economically depressed and racially segregated cities in the nation have decided that the answer to its problems is to fire teachers, close public schools, and expand the number of charters. 

They aren’t thinking about the children. They are thinking about how to cut costs. They will keep hiring private firms to run schools. The private firms will fire those expensive teachers who earn a living wage and hire newcomers willing to work long hours for $30,000 a year. Some of the private firms will replace teachers with virtual academies, so those expensive buildings can be shuttered while children sit at a computer, with one teacher monitoring 50-100 or more screens. The “teachers” may not be certified, may be hourly workers with no benefits, may turn over with frequency. All that cuts costs, too.

There’s lots in these plans to give hope to political allies of the electeds. But not much to give hope to the children.

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