The Circumstances of Courage

By Doug Magill

There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.   Ronald Reagan

When Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson proposed his school reform plan, the results were predictable if largely unimaginative.

The unions decried their latest straw man – a supposed war on public education.

Several politicians bleated that the plan wouldn’t fix the family and socioeconomic reasons that are generally liberals’ excuses for poor school performance.

Business leaders lauded the attempt and gave verbal support for Jackson’s efforts.

The governor supported the plan, though for some reason there was some difficulty finding politicians of courage in Columbus to sponsor the plan.

The Plain Dealer’s editors, in their circumspect fashion, have given lukewarm praise without really going into depth as to what the intent and the effects of the plan would be.  One could hardly blame them.  After all, after all the editorial board is primarily liberal, and they do have that unionized newsroom to deal with.

And yet somewhere there is a genuine crisis that it appears only Mayor Jackson is willing to address.

The performance of Cleveland public schools is by any definition appalling. That is critical for the future economic well-being of the city.  And is urgent for the children trapped in this disaster.

While the overall graduation rate in Ohio in the 2009–2010 school year was 78 percent, Cleveland’s performance was a dismal 52 percent.   No one will claim that Ohio’s efforts were outstanding, yet for the city that level would be an enormous improvement.

Does anyone remember Eugene Sander’s claim that he would achieve a 90-percent graduation rate?  He left after receiving a contract extension and posting a 54-percent score.  No one knows why he left so suddenly, but one might speculate at his frustration with the status quo.

Yet a 90-percent rate is not considered impossible.  Wisconsin, which has the Milwaukee school system to contend with, achieved that level in 2010.  Other states are closing in on that goal.

It is probably not a coincidence that around the time Jackson announced his plan Eric Gordon, the head of the Cleveland School District, announced plans to cut 600 teachers next fall to deal with a projected deficit for the system.  That’s the hammer.  If Jackson doesn’t get his plan approved and an increase in property taxes to pay for it, layoffs and cuts in classes (music, art and gym), along with shortened school days, will result.

It took courage for Mayor Jackson to propose his plan.  Not only does he want more flexibility in changing teacher assignments, but he wants to change the way layoffs and recalls are handled along with how teaches are paid and evaluated.  He wants to treat all schools in the district as part of one organization, and is willing to share funding with charter schools.

All things designed to keep teachers-union officers babbling to themselves long into the night.

But, why not?  These are all things that most businesses take for granted, and have been enormous impediments for not only efficient operation of the school system, but have been significant contributors to its poor performance.  Jackson also proposed a fresh start at the completion of the current contract next year –which has caused howls of protest to emanate from the union headquarters on Euclid Avenue. Jackson has indicated he would back off from that demand, but that just shows he knows how to negotiate.

Muttered criticisms of the resemblance of some of the mayor’s plan to the recently deceased Senate Bill 5 are great theater, but the school plan doesn’t go as far as the bill’s sponsors proposed in eliminating collective bargaining.

That will come soon enough.  Mayor Jackson knows, Eric Gordon knows, most educators know and most legislators know – effective control of the school system has to be achieved by taking it away from the teachers unions.  No other change will have as transformational an effect as that.

There is a reason the Cleveland system still remains under mayoral control.  Even Democrats acknowledge in private that the unions run most school boards.  The iron grip of union money backing the right candidates means that the unions call most of the shots, and the parents and the students are left with an inferior product at ridiculous prices.

So the mayor has taken what has been given him and is running with it.  Leaving not only the unions but most of the Democrats in the state puzzled and alarmed.  He is a Democrat too, isn’t he?

What most people don’t realize is that first and foremost Mayor Jackson is a man of his word, and committed to improving the city of Cleveland.  He has done an outstanding job of managing the city’s finances through difficult economic times, is overseeing a genuine construction boom in downtown, and has proposed the first lakefront plan that has the right mix of public and private money to be successful.

But, overall, he is committed to improving the school system.  He said so, and he means it.  It may be more stubbornness than courage, but I am not sure that history will make the distinction.

Yes, he is riding an approval rating of over 70 percent.  Something he is willing to put on the line to achieve what he knows is essential to our future here.  Most politicians wouldn’t risk it, and would hoard their popularity by not taking on what would normally be their traditional allies in the unions.  But Mayor Jackson, in his quiet way, has the principled integrity to form the alliances necessary to deal with the most intractable problem of all.  The timing is right, and he is perhaps the only man capable of pulling this off.

Dancing all the way to the precipice, the City of Detroit was recently placed under a financial control board by the State of Michigan in order to stave off a default that was approaching in May.  And, will have to renegotiate most of the contracts with the city’s unions – that had just recently been renegotiated.  Even though everyone – save a few rabid liberals –knows that the unions’ dominance of the city’s politics has to end.

And so, at the very end, the city council continued to play politics by demanding a 100 percent increase in corporate tax rates.  A symbolic gesture that would have done more harm to the city’s finances than good.  Mayor Dave Bing, another quiet man of integrity, sidestepped the issue and shepherded the agreement with the state through on the day of the deadline.

Though Motown has lost its autonomy, it still has nominal control of services.  Still, it was disheartening to see the silliness of the posturing as the countdown to default proceeded.  One can’t be too hard on the city council members, though.  They are politicians, and they know they risk being booted out of their jobs if they appeared to be too eager to go against the powerful unions.  They needed the cover of impending default to appear to be forced into making a difficult choice.

Detroit’s situation is worse than Cleveland, in large part because of the lingering aftereffects of the disastrous reign of the race-baiting Coleman Young and the sophomoric antics of Kwame Kilpatrick.  Yet, the road ahead for Cleveland looks similar if we don’t deal with our school and union issues.

Mayor Jackson has been paying attention.  He knows that Cleveland has been there before, and will do everything he can to avoid having the state take over the school system or the city.  It is entirely probable that he doesn’t care if his party is disturbed with him.  He knows what needs to be done.  The answers are fairly simple and have been there all along.

It just takes a quiet man of courage to listen, and act.


Doug Magill has done volunteer work with the Cleveland Public Schools and is a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at



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