Basic Education Lessons

By Doug Magill

Last week Mayor Jackson announced that he is asking the state for legislative authority to create a teacher merit pay system.  I looked outside to see any signs of freezing, and/or the Apocalypse.  Talk about challenging one of the basic orthodoxies of the union/Democrat mindset.

Congratulations to Mayor Jackson.  He has always appeared to be a man of quiet integrity, and despite his silly proclamations on state aid issues he truly wants the best for the city.  This shows that he also has courage, and is willing to accept the slings and arrows that go with truly exercising leadership.  Following the standard Cuyahoga County machine groupthink isn’t leadership – going against the status quo is.

The mayor is asking the legislature not only to allow merit pay but to enable the summary termination of incompetent teachers and to lay off based on performance rather than seniority.  He is also requesting that collective bargaining be banned in charter schools.  The sound of abacuses and green eye shades being thrown against the walls could be heard up and down the street from 1228 Euclid Avenue.  Predictably, the local union reps are blasting the mayor.

This isn’t the way Democrat politicians are supposed to act.

And, in truth, the risk for Mayor Jackson is great.  Once he loses union support there isn’t much left for a Democrat in Cuyahoga County – particularly now that Russo and Dimora are headed to some jail cells downriver.  All the more reason to admire his courage.

He has come out against Senate Bill 5, which contains many of the same things the mayor has requested and are now being negotiated behind closed doors.  All the head scratching in Columbus after the mayor’s surprise announcement may result in an increase in the hair care business near Capitol Square.

On Sunday the Plain Dealer ran one of the more equivocal editorials in the history of unionized, left-wing journalism.  It calls the mayor’s decision a “gutsy call” but then runs behind some obfuscatory language about not supporting S.B. 5 and the governor and it not really being an attack on teachers.  Really?  There are few shibboleths more sacred to our Victorian-era teachers unions than seniority and not being held accountable – I mean being evaluated.

And there is nothing that will shake up and improve performance in the socialist bureaucracy that is the public school system more than finally having accountability for teachers, and competition.

I get angry emails and an occasional incomprehensible phone call when I write about the public school system as being “socialist,” but there is no other word that fits so appropriately.  By any definition I can research, it is a collectivist enterprise, existing for its own purposes and not that of its customers.

Someone forgot to let the PD editorial staff know this, but Mayor Jackson is behind the curve.  A number of states are evaluating teacher merit pay proposals, eliminating seniority as the basis for layoffs, and reducing or eliminating collective bargaining in some circumstances.  And, increasing competition.

Joel Klein, the former chancellor of the New York City Public School System, recently wrote about the success that charter schools are having in one of the most difficult educational environments in the country.  The difference between some of these charters and the nearby public schools is breathtaking.  Harlem Success Academy has 88% of its students proficient in reading, and 95% are proficient in math.  Public schools in close proximity average 31% and 39% respectively.

In other states where teachers unions are restrained and competition is encouraged results are similar.  The demographics of Texas and California are not markedly different, but Texas clearly bests California on standardized national tests – all while spending a lot less money per student.

Indiana, for instance, has effectively reformed collective bargaining so that only wages and benefits can be negotiated.  Some particularly onerous rules that prevent principals from efficiently managing their staffs are now history.  Student learning and growth will now be used to evaluate teachers.

The Hoosier State is also actively promoting charter schools, eliminating caps on online schools, and has significantly expanded the state’s voucher program.  Which, by the way, can be used for private schools.  Parents of private school students will receive tax deductions, and high-performing students will be encouraged to leave high school early and get started on college.

By the way, Indiana is eliminating payments to poor-performing schools with declining enrollment, another way state aid was used to support unions rather than students.

All of which directly and unequivocally reduce the power and influence of the teachers unions, and begin the tentative steps necessary to give parents some control over their child’s education.

According to Klein, “A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won’t happen quickly, but that’s no reason not to begin introducing more competition.”

Finally, the mayor and the new school system CEO, Eric Gordon, recognize that without radical change in the way teachers are evaluated, paid, and retained, that we will not provide the opportunities that our children deserve.

It is useful to remember the candidness of Albert Shanker, the former head of the United Federation of Teachers.  “When schoolchildren start paying union dues,” he said, “that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

It is up to our elected leaders to represent the interests of schoolchildren.  Mayor Jackson has finally realized that, and begun the first step to improving the Cleveland School System.

Doug Magill has run a volunteer program with the Cleveland Public School system, and is a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at


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