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Ten Ideas to Fix Cleveland's Schools

Turn failing schools into charters, empower parents and principals
Policy Brief 86

Lisa Snell
March 15, 2010

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District suffers from severe financial and academic issues. The district has a $53 million deficit for the 2010-2011 school year, has lost close to 40,000 students over the last ten years to middle class flight and the more than 25,000 city students attending charter schools and using school vouchers for private schools, has a 54 percent high school graduation rate, and has close to 75 percent of its schools listed under academic emergency or “watch.” These are the two lowest categories on the state rankings of academic indicators, such as test scores, by the state of Ohio. Clearly Cleveland’s schools need improvement. Here are ten specific suggestions to help fix Cleveland schools.

1. Make Every Failing School a Charter School. In Cleveland six of the top ten schools are charter schools. With so many schools failing so miserably, Cleveland should replace the district-based system in these underperforming schools with a fluid, self-improving system of charter schools. Cleveland should follow New Orleans’ example. In Education Week, Leslie R. Jacobs and Paul Vallas argue that autonomy, budget control and school choice are driving school improvement in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina:

New Orleans schools now operate under a decentralized system that is unique. Sixty percent of students attend charter schools, and both charter and noncharter schools have autonomy over staffing and budgets. All schools are schools of choice. The money follows the student, so schools receive funds based on their enrollment. There is no longer a collective bargaining agreement, nor a citywide salary schedule.

The results thus far are compelling. In the four years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, New Orleans has shown more growth in student achievement than any other district in the state. The percentage of failing schools is down significantly, and student test scores are up in every grade and subject. Some of the gains are dramatic. The 10th grade math proficiency rate has jumped from 39 percent to 58 percent, and the senior graduation rate from 79 percent to 89 percent. The percentage of 8th graders proficient in English has grown from 26 percent to 42 percent. For context, from 1999 until the state takeover in 2005, 8th grade English proficiency had improved by a meager 3 points.

It shouldn’t take a massive natural disaster for Cleveland to start better serving the city’s kids.

2. Empower the Parents. Cleveland should allow schools with a majority of parents who sign a petition to be restructured to convert to charter school status and be run by higher-performing charter schools. In California, for example, the state has just passed legislation that allows parents to initiate a school turnaround plan such as becoming a charter school if 50 percent of parents sign a petition to change the school management. In Los Angeles, a parent revolution opened up the possibility that up to 250 schools including the lowest performing schools in Los Angeles could be opened as independently managed charter schools with performance contracts rather than district-run public schools. One successful example of this model is Gompers Middle School in San Diego,which was considered a dangerous and failing school in 2005 when parents and the community voted to convert to a charter school. Five years later the school has a good safety record and has made significant progress on the state's academic performance index gaining 88 points and significantly improving math and reading test scores.

3. Close the Failing Schools. In order to open new schools based on the charter model, closing failing schools is essential. In the Winter 2010 issue of Education Next, Andy Smarick takes a hard line on closing poor performing schools in the Turnaround Fallacy. If they can’t turn things around quickly, closing poor performing schools before they hurt more kids is critical. Cleveland has 50 schools rated an “F” by the state and 27 rated a “D” out of 107 schools. As Smarick might say: close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.

4. Implement Student-Based Budgeting. In support of decentralized schools, Cleveland should create one simple funding mechanism that distributes federal, state and local funding based on a “student-based budgeting.” This financing system would include one base allocation equalized across all of the schools in the district and additional weighted funds for students with additional needs such as special education, poverty or English learners. This process would make school finance simpler, more equitable and bring significant cost savings by reducing central office costs and redirecting some of this savings to increase per-pupil funding allocations in the classroom. At least 15 major school districts including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Hawaii and New York City have implemented student-based budgeting whereby the money follows students into schools.

5. Send Schools Money, Not Staff. Schools should receive revenue in the same way that the district receives revenue, on a per-pupil basis reflecting the enrollment at a school and the individual characteristics of students at each school. The current staffing model is a very inefficient way to fund schools and creates serious inequities between schools. For example, if under a district staffing model a school receives one administrator for each 300 students, a school with 300 students and a school with 599 students would receive the equivalent resources for that staffing position. However, if schools receive budgets based on dollars related to per-pupil funding, it gives school principals the money that each student generates and allows principals to more efficiently allocate revenue and staff. This also helps as school enrollments decrease or increase. The staffing model is a very inefficient method to allocate resources as student populations change over time. For example, a staffing model cannot easily reallocate teachers as enrollment changes from one school to another. However, principals can individually assess their staffing needs and allocate staff to fit the enrollment conditions at each individual school.

6. Let Cleveland Principals Control the Money. Cleveland’s principals must be able to make decisions about how to spend resources in terms of staffing and programs. The more “unlocked” dollars a principal controls, the more autonomy that principal has over designing the school to meet the needs of the students in the school. Districts that place the majority of their operating budget, between 70 and 90 percent, into a school-level allocation, offer principals more autonomy and more real decision-making power.

7. Give Parents the Choice to Attend Any School in Cleveland. In order for all schools to be held accountable for performance and schools to experience more charter-like autonomy, parents need more choices and the ability to move their children freely between district schools. To help improve outcomes for students, families need to be able to choose between schools. This gives less popular schools an incentive to improve to attract and retain families. School choice also shows district officials which schools hold the most value to customers. While the majority of schools will show improvements once principals control school budgets and public schools begin to compete with one another, schools that do not improve can be merged with higher-performing schools or they can close and students and resources can be redirected toward higher-performing schools. School choice is an accountability mechanism that reveals which schools are serving students effectively, by giving dissatisfied families the right to exit and go to a higher-performing school.

8. Keep the Best Teachers, Not Ones with Seniority. Cleveland should not hire or fire teachers based on seniority. Cleveland should adopt an evaluation process that includes teacher peer review, principal evaluation and teacher performance based on test score data to rate overall teacher effectiveness. Principals should have discretion over school-level layoffs based on teacher performance data. Seniority-based layoffs do not consider teacher effectiveness, meaning that teachers who make vital contributions to school success can nevertheless be among those to receive pink slips. For example, the Los Angeles Times reports on Richard Rivera, an algebra teacher directing a special vital algebra project for Los Angeles Unified. “After three years at charter schools, Rivera returned to the Los Angeles Unified School District last year as a math coach—a kind of roving instructor and supervisor—at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park. He also agreed to work on the algebra project, a new program designed to keep low-achieving students involved in math. Since he lost his seniority after working in a charter school, he was one of the first teachers to receive a pink slip despite his critical skills.” Schools need to keep their best teachers, regardless of seniority.

9. Publish a Detailed School-Level Budget. Cleveland should report school-level budget data that are transparent to parents and include greater detail rather than district summary views for general expense categories. As a recent Education Week commentary, “Democratize School Budget Data,” argues, “All school checkbook expenditures should be made accessible online—and in a structured, downloadable database that would allow citizens to search for and slice and dice the data in whatever way they might want.” Currently Cleveland does not report school-level data and it is difficult to determine how money is spent at each school in the district. Parents and taxpayers should have school-level data to evaluate how the district is assigning resources to each school based on the enrollment at each school.

10. Give Cleveland Schools Collective Bargaining Relief. Cleveland has one of the most restrictive collective bargaining agreements in the country. In order to move toward more charter-like, autonomous schools, Cleveland needs to work toward human-resource reform and collective bargaining reforms that free individual schools from many of the rules and regulations governing employee management. School districts have negotiated for more autonomy in union contracts to minimize work rules that interfere with school-level autonomy. These contract stipulations often waive union rules that detail the length of the school year, instructional minutes and acceptable teacher duties. Some student-based budgeting and school empowerment programs have negotiated new contracts or use “flat” contracts of 10 or less pages that allow autonomy for the details of a teacher’s job description to be decided at the school level, as long as both the principal and the teacher agree to the working conditions. These flat contracts still offer teachers the district salary schedule, tenure and due process protection. However, these contracts free principals to negotiate individual work rules with their own staff. In order to fix schools in Cleveland individual principals need autonomy over school-level decisions such as determining the number of instructional minutes, staffing decisions about whom to hire rather than receiving district-assigned teachers, and decisions about how best to organize the school day.

Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation.


Lisa Snell is Director of Education


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