Academic journal article Education Next

Can't Let Go: Just a Few Years Back, School-Based Management Was the Rage in Cleveland. except That the Central Office Wasn't All That Interested in Relinquishing Control. (Forum)

Academic journal article Education Next

Can't Let Go: Just a Few Years Back, School-Based Management Was the Rage in Cleveland. except That the Central Office Wasn't All That Interested in Relinquishing Control. (Forum)

Article excerpt

IN THE MID-1990s CLEVELAND'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS teetered on the edge of collapse. Nearly $100 million dollars were questionably accounted for, and the district was on the verge of bankruptcy. The board of education was tangled in petty patronage, and the district had failed for decades to satisfy the courts that its schools were not racially segregated. In February 1995 the superintendent resigned, and a dispute erupted between the state and the district over who would replace her. These headline-grabbing crises only hinted at the malaise that had captured the city's schools. Only 1 in 15 of the district's 9th graders could expect to graduate in four years and pass all elements of Ohio's 12th-grade competency tests. Visitors to schools found that security guards were more prominent than teachers. The vaulted, pillared entrances of Progressive-era buildings, once monuments to the nation's optimism, had become breaches of school safety. Their wide entryways were chained shut. Narrow side entrances were built to hel p control the flow of students between morning and afternoon lockups.

In March of 1995, a federal appeals court judge, citing the school board's mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility, turned control of the city's schools over to the state. Ohio state officials renegotiated contracts with hundreds of administrators, stripped the board of its power, and, with the help of Mayor Michael White, succeeded in winning a desperately needed school levy--only the second school levy passed in 26 years. This averted the immediate threat of financial collapse, but the problem of ensuring responsible school management in the future remained. In 1996, hoping to find a long-term solution, Mayor White and the district's state-appointed superintendent, Richard Boyd, assembled an Advisory Committee on Governance, The committee held months of public debate, including two forums that drew approximately 400 citizens. Prom these discussions emerged two main strategies.

The most controversial proposal was a mayoral takeover, the purpose being to break up the power of the existing school board. A takeover by the mayor would provide a way to maintain a link to the electorate while allowing the state to replace political patronage appointees with a more independent board. To accomplish this, the state legislature had to legalize mayoral control in Cleveland. Lawsuits brought by the NAACP and the teacher union attempting to block the plan failed. In September 1998, Mayor White joined his peers in Boston, Detroit, and Chicago in taking charge of the district and appointing a school board.

While the developing plan for mayoral takeover was promoting the centralization of school governance, another part of the committee's agenda proposed to take the district in the opposite direction through "school-based management." School-based management devolves responsibility for personnel, curriculum, and other policies to individual schools. Some form of school-based management has been embraced by most large urban school districts and by probably well over a third of all American school districts during the past 15 years. The idea is to improve schools by giving teachers and principals more say in the decisions affecting them and to involve local communities in the governance and management of their schools. Studies have shown, however, that school-based management has rarely, if ever, been fully implemented within the hierarchical structures of American school districts. Thus it is difficult to know whether this form of decentralization has the potential to improve school practices.

Local school councils that would have significant autonomy in managing schools were the centerpiece of Cleveland's decentralization plan. In its 1998 mission statement the school district declared that the schools' problems would be addressed by "strengthening school effectiveness through decentralization' In the fall of 1998, the district created the first eight neighborhood-based school governance councils to begin a projected three-year transformation of all schools in the district, Under the banner of "community empowerment;' each local school council assembled the principal, four parents, four teachers, a noncertified staff member, a community representative, a corporate-partner representative, and, in the high schools, two students. …

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