Democratic Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has always been opposed to Senate Bill 5 – the recently passed law that limits collective bargaining for public employees. Which is why it came as a shock to some people when Jackson pushed Republican lawmakers to include a teacher merit system in the state budget.
Earlier this week Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson co-authored a letter with Cleveland schools CEO-elect Eric Gordon and School Board Chief Denise Link urging them to put merit-based teacher evaluations back into the state budget. That letter was sent to Governor John Kasich and the heads of the Ohio House and Senate.
And that hurt people like Michele Pomerantz.
“The teachers in Cincinnati and the teachers in Toledo and all of the Ohio Federation of Teachers understand that what happens in Cleveland will permeate throughout the state, so they will join us in our fight against this,” Pomerantz said. She has been leading the effort to repeal SB 5 for the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the Cleveland Teachers Union.
She said the letter surprised and upset her; “this letter is more than just a mere piece of paper and this relationship was something much stronger 24 hours ago.”
But Mayor Frank Jackson said he stands by his private letter, calling the teachers union “fair weather friends.” He wrote it because he believes performance should be taken into account when it comes to giving teachers raises or firing them. He said including merit pay in the budget would give districts a framework in which to develop their own way of evaluating teachers, often based on test scores, graduation rates, and peer reviews.
“I don’t believe that anybody should get an automatic raise just because they’ve been there,” Jackson said. “There should be some evaluation that ties their compensation to their performance and some accountability for that.”
Teachers like Larry Weakland say it’s that sort of rhetoric that makes them feel persecuted. A 20-year veteran of Cleveland Schools, Weakland just got laid off in May from his job as a second grade teacher, along with about 750 other people. This was his first layoff, and he hopes to get called back. He said his kids and their parents loved him – and a stack of notes and thank you cards affirm that. But he still wouldn’t trust a merit pay system because he thinks it’s too arbitrary.
“I just don’t see how it can be a fair system and even if I get a fair shake someone else is going to get screwed down the road,” Weakland said. His house is a testament to his years as a teacher, especially his basement. It’s filled with boxes upon boxes of school supplies, a couple desks littered with letters from his students, and several book cases filled from top to bottom with binders.
“All together, there’s about 110 binders, 1-inch binders. Here you see citizenship, reading, just a variety of things,” Weakland said as he flipped through the contents of a binder, full of lesson plans and worksheets.He even kept all of his student evaluations, written anonymously though he says he can recognize each of his students’ hand writing.
Weakland read a few from the stack on his table, “there a couple in here that say what could the teacher do better and they say he could get a wig or grow hair.”
Weakland said his basement is proof that experience makes a difference, because “the years of working pay off because you accumulate experience, you accumulate knowledge, you accumulate teaching strategies.”
That’s what Diane Ravitch, the former assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush has been saying and writing about for years. She acknowledges that merit pay is a popular concept, but the reality is something else.
In fact, she said forcing merit pay onto Ohio’s schools “will be a waste of money because it’ll produce no results and it will incentivize bad behavior. It will incentivize people to teach to the test, it will incentivize them to narrow the curriculum, it will incentivize them to drop the arts, drop history and drop foreign languages and focus only on what’s tested.”
But incoming Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon says asking for merit pay to be included in the state budget does not mean getting rid of tenure, or attacking the unions.
“We can’t continue to let the rhetoric be about demonizing teachers,” he said. “We have to shift it to a conversation about what are the rules and policies of our state and nation that support us locally doing the work. We actually have incredible teachers and we have the data to back that up.”
In fact, Gordon said his teachers shouldn’t be afraid of a merit pay system, because Cleveland test scores have been rising. That’s something merit pay would likely reward.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said he feels confidant merit-pay for teachers will make it’s way back into the budget.
He said there was a very specific reason he wrote the letter in the first place.
“It was communicated to me that if the mayor of the city of Cleveland wanted these kinds of things to work with his school system in the budget he needs to let us know. I imagine there was some ulterior kind of political agenda there particularly because I am opposed to SB 5 and I am for the repeal of it and I imagine that was some attempt to put me in a compromising position but after all that is said and done I fall on the side of the kids.”
Jackson said if this measure isn’t included in the final budget proposal, he’ll have a better idea of who he can and cannot trust in Columbus. State legislators have a few more days to pass the state’s two-year spending plan before the end of the month.