Deal struck to allow reform of Cleveland schools

CLEVELAND - Cleveland's struggling public schools and high-performing charter schools created as an alternative have found a way to co-exist under a compromise agreement on required state legislation.

Under the deal announced Friday, a coordinating panel proposed by Democratic Mayor Frank Jackson will get the authority to sanction requests for new and renewing charters in the district.

Charter schools would have to choose from a list of sponsors cleared by the panel and would have to meet standards based on national guidelines. Some Cleveland charters could see a share of district property taxes.

Charter school advocates and Republican allies had balked at giving the panel authority over charters, which would play an increasing role in public education under Jackson's proposal.

"At the end of the day," Jackson said, "everybody recognized that quality was the goal, is the goal, and I want to commend those in the charter community who really helped take us over that last hurdle in order to make this happen."

With the charter school concerns resolved, members of the house and senate are expected to vote on the legislation June 12. Legislative leaders have given Jackson a commitment that it will pass.

Jackson, GOP Gov. John Kasich and a bipartisan group of involved state and local officials were on hand for the city hall announcement.

"It's so fantastic what's happened here," Kasich said. "It is just so fantastic.  You know it's a gold medal for cooperation."

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the compromise contained many ideas that have already been debated.

"The charter schools had not yet bought into the scenario," she said. "They've been meeting with them on a one-to-one basis and talking through some of their concerns. I think from the beginning this required everyone to move off their comfort zone for one goal and one goal only, which is to improve the quality of the schools in Cleveland."

Jackson didn't want to allow poor charter schools into the district. But charter operators didn't want Cleveland, which they perceive as having failed at fixing the schools, given the power to decide whose school survives and whose doesn't.

Lehner said it's important to the plan's success for neither side to cast blame.

"This is a new day. We're not going to hold anyone responsible for bad decisions made in previous years," she said. "The idea is to raise the bar and say, `Let's improve the quality of all our schools,' and that means both traditional and charter schools."

The plan is specific to Cleveland. However, districts are watching Kasich closely on the issue with the expectation that he will advocate taking elements of the approach statewide. Labor unions have criticized the proposal's approach to certain teacher issues for their resemblance to Senate Bill 5, the sweeping collective bargaining bill that Kasich signed and voters subsequently repealed.

Jackson's plan ultimately calls for shuttering low-performing public schools and reconfiguring them, in a cooperative agreement with the teachers' union.

The mayor's proposals included limiting the right of teachers to block reassignments based on seniority and giving the district CEO and city schools a freer hand to deal with a looming $65 million deficit and to close poor-performing schools.

Stronger collaboration with charter schools was a centerpiece of Jackson's proposal.

Cleveland has a 63 percent graduation rate, well below the national average of 75 percent in 2009, and its students consistently trail Ohio test averages.

Jackson and supporters of his school plan have cast it as a necessary first step in improving education and winning public support for a tax increase referendum, possibly by November.

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Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus contributed to this report.

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