CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Cleveland's public schools are rooted in the campaign to provide a tax-supported, compulsory system of education that began with Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Henry Barnard in Connecticut during the late 1820s. They and other reformers in the antebellum era fought to create a legal and financial basis for public education and to include secondary schooling in the system. Between the Civil War and World War I, America's public schools expanded their role, attempting to compensate for their students' deficiencies, instituting programs for vocational-technical students, immigrant and impoverished children, adult learners, and the handicapped. Between this period and World War II, public education developed extracurricular activities, psychological testing and tracking of students, and expanded adult and vocational education. After the war, America's inner-city school systems were burdened with both a declining tax base and a growing student population as southern blacks migrated north, while also having to deal with the effects of poverty and racial discrimination. The federal government played a larger role financing and controlling public education, especially school systems under a court desegregation order. After the termination of the desegregation order, Ohio allowed mayoral control of the Cleveland Public Schools (CPS). In addition, it allowed the state to financially support charter and sectarian schools. Through these eras, the public schools are always expected to build good character, promote mobility and social harmony, and educate the general public. Every generation struggled and debated how best to achieve this mission amid challenging socioeconomic changes and political conflicts.
In 1836 the state legislature of Ohio incorporated Cleveland as a city and allowed it to organize a tax-supported public school system. The city council appointed a board of school managers, which took over a school located at the Protestant Bethel Union Chapel on Superior Hill. The BETHEL UNION provided free education mainly for poor children who attended its Sunday school. Most middle class parents employed tutors or sent their children to private schools such as the CLEVELAND ACADEMY, a secondary school established in 1821. The public saw no need for schooling beyond the basics of "the 3 Rs" in a rural economy. Although the public schools were advertised as a “poor man’s college” and a “melting pot,” impoverished, immigrant, working class and minority students did not typically attend beyond elementary school.
To accommodate 800 students, the city built separate schools for boys and girls in each city ward and purchased the Cleveland Academy in 1837. By 1842 there were 15 public schools enrolling 1,200 students. Public education had a difficult time overcoming the image of being a charity organization, since many students were housed in rented, overcrowded, and inadequate buildings. Faced with cuts from state funds, the managers reduced teachers' wages and shortened the school year. Nevertheless, progress and reform occurred. The board prescribed a uniform system of textbooks, and teachers, required to take competency tests and evidence good moral character, divided their schools into as many classes as possible, and all students, regardless of their backgrounds, were to receive a common education. In 1844 school manager CHARLES BRADBURN led the crusade to establish the first public high school against those higher taxes and the failure of the elementary schools to enroll the over 2,000 children of school age not in attendance. One critic also questioned whether a citywide high school would qualify as "a common school," since the council had the right only to lobby for district schools in the city's wards. Bradburn and his supporters proudly opened CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL on 13 July 1846 – the first public high school west of the Alleghenies.
In 1847 the state authorized the election of a board of education to control all schools in a single district. In 1853 Ohio established school levies to eliminate student fees and authorized local school boards to organize primary and secondary schools. The newly appointed board chose ANDREW FREESE, the first principal of Central High School, as superintendent. In 1859 the state allowed each of the city's 11 wards to elect members to the school board for a term of 1 year. Freese attempted to grade and classify the schools by dividing the elementary system into 3 divisions and introducing a course of study for each grade. The Brownell St. School, enrolling 1,386 pupils its first year (1865), was indicative of the city's growing population, as factories expanded during the industrial era; Superintendent ANSON SMYTH's 1866 statement that the public schools, with 9,270 students, could compensate for a lack of moral culture and religious instruction, indicates the schools' perceived mission.
ANDREW RICKOFF, superintendent after the Civil War, had a great impact on public education, classifying students into 12 grades and 3 divisions (primary, grammar, and high school), a major step away from one room of mixed grades and the basis for placing students in graded curriculum according to their age and ability. Rickoff expected teachers to fit their students into a new prescribed course of study each term, semiannually promote students, and eliminate the separation of boys and girls. In 1872 German became part of a bilingual program to attract the city's German children (see GERMANS) who were attending private schools. The superintendent and board had far greater control of the public schools after the state reduced the city council's authority to approve new school locations and buildings. In 1874 a normal school for training teachers was founded. During Rickoff's 15-year tenure, the schools expanded from 9,643 to 26,990 students and from 123 to 473 teachers. National acclaim came to the educational exhibits of the Cleveland public schools at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, but local newspapers attacked the schools' unsanitary and overcrowded conditions and the political manipulations of the school board. BURKE HINSDALE, president of Hiram College, criticized the mechanical nature of the educational environment. A newly elected school board appointed him as the next superintendent. He encouraged teachers to return to grounding each student in the essentials of a good education. Like his predecessor, though, Hinsdale and his Republican friends on the school board were defeated by a new political coalition.
In 1884 an after-school program called the Manual Training School opened, including classes in carpentry, woodturning, mechanical drawing, machine shop, and cooking. The school board opened West Manual Training School and added a 2-year business course to the secondary curriculum. Evening schools increasingly focused on helping immigrants learn English and civics to pass naturalization exams as a heavy influx of people from Europe arrived in the city. In 1889 the school board hired its first truant officer to enforce the new compulsory-attendance law requiring children of school age to attend 20 weeks a year.
In 1891 reformers secured the passage of the Federal Plan, allowing the public to elect a school board of 7 members as a legislative branch and a school director as an executive branch. Andrew Draper, appointed superintendent, tried improving the teaching staff, and opened a manual training room in Central High School and a school for deaf children. Louis H. Jones, his successor, opened the first kindergartens in 1896 and began a medical inspection program. In 1904 the state abolished the Federal Plan and allowed 5 members to be elected at large and 2 by wards for the school board, which appointed WILLIAM H. ELSON superintendent in 1905. He pioneered vocational education by opening a technical high school in 1908; fashioned general education courses to the demands of the business world and established a commercial high school in 1909; and assigned each teacher a group of students to counsel in a homeroom. In 1909 an industrial school opened for nonacademically talented children who dropped out of school after the 7th or 8th grade, which devoted a half-day to academic work and the remainder to industrial work, home economics, and physical education. This program became the basis for the junior high program.
As part of the progressive movement at the turn of the century, America's public schools expanded their role in society. In 1903 CPS opened playgrounds and summer vacation schools. It also expanded the physical education program and instituted a school gardening program. In 1908 the first medical dispensary in public education opened at Murray Hill School. In 1910 the CLEVELAND DENTAL SOCIETY began inspecting children's teeth in the public schools. Elson instituted luncheon rooms in the high schools, classes for the blind, social centers, and a normal school at UNIV. CIRCLE. Despite his innovative reforms, Elson and his supporters were defeated at the polls amid charges of fraudulent school contracts awarded after the COLLINWOOD SCHOOL FIRE killed 172 students in 1908, and complaints about school overcrowding, with 64,409 students in 1912.
In 1915 the CLEVELAND FOUNDATION conducted a comprehensive survey of CPS, criticizing the system's inefficiency and lack of programs to deal with the children's needs, with two-thirds of the student population leaving school before the legally required age. In 1917 a new school board chose FRANK E. SPAULDING to implement the survey. He centralized decision making and expanded the junior highs to retain more children in the middle grades. Guidance counselors, testing, and grouping students by ability were also introduced to reduce the failure rate. The public schools increased their efforts to Americanize immigrants and their children, dropped teaching German, and required a loyalty oath of teachers. The Smith Hughes Act of 1917 provided federal funds to expand vocational education. By 1918 the school population numbered 106,862, with 4,715, almost half the secondary enrollment, in the commercial-technical high schools.
ROBINSON G. JONES, the deputy superintendent who organized 15 junior high schools during Elson's administration, became superintendent in 1920, serving 15 years and supporting music education and services for crippled and mentally deficient students. The schools initiated extracurricular activities, such as glee clubs, school newspapers, student council, and sports programs to develop "the good character" of pupils. Nine elementary curriculum centers organized an ungraded program for the least capable students and attempted to individualize the curriculum according to each student's abilities and needs. Responding to the decline in the neighborhood around Central High School and to the arrival of black students who had been denied access to a decent education in the South, a clinic was established to study and remedy the educational and social problems of the neighborhood's youth. In 1922 the school board approved the creation of the Major Work Program of special classes for gifted children. Reduced fees increased adult education enrollment to over 10,000 students by 1927. Aided by the Bing Act (1921), requiring attendance until age 18 and graduation from high school, daily enrollment expanded to 144,000 students. Between 1920-30 the school system spent over $18 million to construct 32 buildings.
Greater emphasis was given to vocational and special education classes in the 1920s. In 1920 a program permitted students to work as apprentices in trades 4 hours per week. In 1924 the Girls Opportunity School was opened for students who left school because of their inability to perform traditional academic work, with a program including cooking, hygiene, home nursing, English, and math. It later became Jane Addams School, with 1,500 students by 1930. In 1927 Eagle School was converted into a trade school for male students – the basis for the 1957 Max Hayes Vocational School. In 1924 Thos. A. Edison School, the successor to a program for "incorrigible children," enrolled male students with disciplinary problems, offering courses in millwork, mechanical drawing, metalwork, and handwork. In 1926 Outhwaite School for Boys, and in 1929 Longwood School for Girls, began special education for students below average for their grades, who were expected to transfer back to regular classrooms after being brought up to their grade level.
The black student population grew from 9,066 in 1923 to 13,430 in 1929 (see AFRICAN AMERICANS). The CLEVELAND CALL & POST, a black newspaper, complained on 7 Jan. 1937 that too many black students were enrolled at Longwood and Outhwaite Schools, claiming those schools had become a permanent dumping ground for not only average, but also for mentally deficient and slow-learning students, providing only half the subjects offered in traditional high schools, lowering their students' morale. The black community also complained about the deterioration of programs at Central High School, and in 1936 threatened to oppose future school levies unless improvements were made. Physical repairs were made in the special-education schools, and in 1939 a cornerstone was laid for a new Central High School. Three years earlier, HAZEL MOUNTAIN WALKER became the school system's first black principal. The Depression decreased the city's tax duplicate and forced the schools to curtail expenses by reducing programs and staff. Yet the schools fed over 44,000 needy children daily; the medical inspection and health programs increased their efforts; and the federal government paid for adult education teachers. With World War II, the schools expanded their vocational-technical program, training over 50,000 for jobs in war industries. Superintendent Mark Schinnerer contended that that was a permanent priority, as only a minority of students went to college.
CPS emphasized "life adjustment" classes in the 1950s to reduce the dropout rate and help young adults find appropriate vocations. The need to provide facilities for the growing student population was the dominant issue during the 1950s and 1960s. Enrollment increased from 99,686 in 1950 to 148,793 in 1963. In 1960 Cleveland ranked as one of the lowest (38th) in professional staff per 1,000 pupils. In 1966, Cleveland ranked lowest in Cuyahoga County, with a per pupil expenditure of $480, and with 90 of its 174 schools over 50 years old. Faced with a dwindling tax base because of depopulation and industrial decline, the school system struggled to educate a growing student population, increasingly enrolling low-income and minority students as white middle-class families and jobs fled to the suburbs after World War II. Private foundations and the federal government attempted to help.
In 1960 the city's schools could not adequately house the enrollment of 134,765 students; 14,000 were put on half-days because of the shortage of teachers and classrooms, mainly in the city's east side black neighborhoods. In 1960 the Ford Foundation funded a project at Addison Jr. High School in HOUGH to reduce the dropout and juvenile-delinquency rates among black adolescents. As part of its Great Cities Grey Areas Program, the federal government also supported the Hough Community Project, which included home visitation, work study, and remedial programs. In addition, in 1963 it provided more funds for vocational education. Max Hayes was open from 8 A.M. to 10:30 P.M. and enrolled 796 high school students, 1,250 apprentices, and 1,493 adult education students. To relieve overcrowding, superintendent Wm. B. Levenson proposed renting space from the Catholic Diocese. Lee Howley, vice-president of CLEVELAND ELECTRIC ILLUMINATING CO. and chairman of a citizens' committee on school finances, campaigned for a bond issue to build more facilities. In 1962 70% of the voting public approved a bond program and levy to improve the schools, but the building plans met resistance from civil-rights groups, led by Clarence H. Holmes, president of the UNITED FREEDOM MOVEMENT. Pickets, demonstrations, public meetings, and a school boycott protested the continuing segregation of black students. Civil-rights leaders argued that it was better to bus black students to unused classrooms than to build new schools that perpetuated segregation. Violence erupted in the Murray Hill School Dist., and Rev. BRUCE W. KLUNDER, a young Presbyterian minister, was killed by a bulldozer in 1964 while participating in a protest. The head of the school board promised to bus blacks to integrate the system. The superintendent resigned, and ALFRED BENESCH, a veteran of the school board, contended that the present board should resign for interfering with the superintendent.
In 1963 the Program for Action by Citizens in Education (the PACE ASSN.), organized with the support of the Cleveland Associated Foundation, and advocated a variety of school reforms: early reading assistance, libraries in elementary schools, a human-relations curriculum, black teacher recruitment, a tutor corps, interdistrict vocational training and summer schools, and the establishment of an agency to promote its recommendations, which became a foundation-supported organization developing a wide variety of programs improving public education, before its demise in 1974. ALTERNATIVE SCHOOLS such as the Cleveland Urban Learning Community of St. Ignatius High School, the United Independent Schools of E. Cleveland, and the Urban League's Street Academy, provided non-traditional options in the 1970s and demonstrated the need for reform. In 1964 PAUL BRIGGS, head of the PARMA schools, became superintendent and the board ended the "dual system" of administration that existed since 1904 by making the Business Dept. report to him. Briggs announced that the schools would have "a new look" through federal assistance that would expand preschool education and a new center for adult education. The enrollment of adults in literacy classes almost doubled. Antipoverty programs and the Elementary & Secondary Education Act of 1965 funded many new programs. Assisted by PACE, 105 elementary libraries opened in 1966. Briggs launched an ambitious building program in 1968 that included a downtown Supplementary Education Ctr. for students throughout the city and an extensive school-building program. The public passed another bond issue to build schools for the over 150,000 students.
After a survey demonstrated that two-thirds of high school dropouts were unemployed, the federal government established a Student Neighborhood Youth Corps, providing after-school jobs. In 1965 a federally-funded Manpower & Training Ctr. was established, including basic or remedial courses and vocational education. Programs in cooperative and distributive education in high schools provided students with on-the-job work experience. A vocational Occupational Program was to reduce the number of dropouts without marketable skills. In addition, the school cooperated with the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation to provide work-study programs for boys who qualified. An Occupational Work Experience Program, including a work laboratory with wood- and metal-working equipment, began for below-average high school students. Under contract with the U.S. Dept. of Labor, the Woodland Job Training Ctr. enrolled over 1,000 in a factory school in 1968, training hard-core, unemployed city residents.
Briggs recruited black teachers and administrators, appointed Jas. B. Tanner, a black educator, as his assistant superintendent, and helping organize a Master of Arts in Teaching at JOHN CARROLL UNIV. He declared that the federal government's Aid to Dependent Children would provide over $1 million in the first 6 months of 1968 to finance 11 new programs for 29,289 disadvantaged learners in 81 schools. But in 1973, the CLEVELAND NAACP filed a suit claiming that quality education was not legal or possible in a segregated environment. On 6 Feb. 1978, Federal Judge FRANK J. BATTISTI issued a remedial order as a result of his finding the previous year that the CPS and State Board of Education were guilty of de facto and de jure segregation of black students in Cleveland. Briggs and the school board, headed by Arnold Pinkney, a black businessman, defended neighborhood schools and claimed that segregation was the result of residential housing patterns they were not obligated to correct. The desegregation case demonstrated that the board's actions, which included busing, constructing schools, and reassigning students for the purposes of segregation, had racially isolated and violated the 14th Amendment rights of the city's black children. Briggs predicted the court order would increase both white flight from the city and the dual system of public education that left schools in central cities with predominantly disadvantaged minority children. His problems were increased when the public rejected by an almost 2-to-1 margin a request for a school levy to remedy the school system's deficits, and he resigned his position. In Sept. 1978 the system obtained a $20 million loan from Ohio's Emergency School Assistance Fund. The state also found Cleveland's public schools below minimum standards and made compliance and the appointment of a financial administrator the basis of a second loan in 1981.
The federal court established a Dept. of School Desegregation Relations to eliminate the effects of prior desegregation and to provide an integrated educational environment. The Office of School Monitoring & Community Relations was established to foster the public's understanding of desegregation and to report on its progress. Chas. Leftwich, the court-appointed deputy superintendent, had the school department report directly to him. After Leftwich resigned, the court approved the board's appointment of Margaret Fleming in Nov. 1978. The Monitoring Commission reported to the court that the school system had resegregated black students transported from the Addison Jr. High district and should be held in contempt for obstructing the court's desegregation plan. The court removed Fleming from her position and appointed Donald Waldrip to head the Dept. of Desegregation in 1980. The court order led to crosstown busing, massive teacher transfers, a mandatory reading program, and other measures to equalize the schools.
Superintendent Peter Carlin, Briggs' successor, described his efforts as "Working Together for Excellence." He and the school board addressed the teachers' needs after the CLEVELAND TEACHERS’ UNION (organized in 1933) struck in 1978 and 1979. Carlin reported that the schools made progress toward integration by daily transporting over 30,000 students in 550 vehicles. The schools now served over 12 million free or reduced meals, had a computerized scheduling program, School Community Councils and Parent Awareness Project, human-relations training for staff and teachers, improvement in elementary reading scores, compliance with the state's minimum standards except for facilities, repayment of both state loans, and a Code of Rights, Responsibilities & Discipline for students. But conflicts among school board members, school closings and program reductions, layoffs, the continuing poor performance of students, and declining enrollment diminished the public's confidence. In 1982 Carlin left the system, suing for its failure to evaluate him before his non-reappointment. Two years later, Waldrip departed under a dark cloud for both his inability to obtain funding for the expansion of magnet schools and his purchase of a million reading programs from a firm he had represented.
The cost per pupil, up more than 100% between 1971-80, ranked the expenditures of the CPS in the top 10% of districts in Ohio. The percentage of the system's budget spent on educational programs and teachers declined, but the expense of maintenance, administration, and non-teaching personnel increased as enrollment dropped. In 1980 Judge Battisti ordered the State of Ohio as a co-defendant in the desegregation case to bear half the cost of the court order. Faced with resistance from the school board, Battisti had to issue 4,000 orders between 1976 and 1984 to implement desegregation of the public schools. Strikes by teachers and other employees further complicated matters. But the desegregation order was not met with the mob violence that had occurred in other cities. In 1983 an accounting firm's study estimated that the board expected to spend $1.3 million for custodial employee overtime. A coalition to reform the school board budget continually criticized the board's spending priorities.
The debate about the role and performance of the public schools revolves around the larger question of how America can live up to its commitment to human rights and equality. The court's desegregation order reaffirmed the importance of the schools as part of the nation's democratic heritage. But their poor performance eroded the belief that schools can cure the problems of American society. Cleveland's public schools freed themselves of political control and the image of being a charity organization before the Civil War but were, by the 1980s, reverting to these conditions. The continued crisis of public education in Cleveland prompted proposals for its takeover by either the state or the mayor. After Carlin's departure, Superintendent Frederick Holliday committed suicide, and his successor was forced to resign. Alfred Tutela, who came from Boston as a member of the court's desegregation team in 1978, was appointed superintendent in 1986. He announced that the system needed over $50 million to repair facilities. With diminishing federal support and local taxes, prospects for such massive rehabilitation looked remote. Diminishing resources jeopardized the school system's ability to survive its escalating problems.
The Cleveland voters approved a bond issue to repair the schools but refused to pass a tax levy for their operation, despite the fact that the district had to borrow money from the state on 3 occasions between 1977 and 1983. Some school leaders and citizens saw the busing program for racial integration as an unwanted financial burden that had to be removed before the passage of a new levy. Due to conflicts with the school board over the use of the newly acquired bond money, Tutela left the system after the school board bought out his contract for more than $300,000. In 1991 Superintendent Frank Huml predicted a $30 million deficit, but the board refused to put a levy on the ballot. Cleveland's per pupil expenditures were still higher than most districts in its region. The Plain Dealer and educational summits under the sponsorship of MAYOR MICHAEL WHITE's office, the business community, and community leaders pointed to the deficiencies of the educational system. The majority of students were not able to pass Ohio's new proficiency test for 9th grade students. Many graduates couldn't qualify for entry level jobs. Governor Voinovich called for a state takeover. The majority of Cleveland's residents gave the school system a D or F grade in a poll taken by the CITIZENS LEAGUE's Research Institute.
The problems of CPS were deeply rooted in the challenging social and economic conditions of the city. Deindustrialization, automation, outsourcing of jobs to cheaper labor markets, and growth of its suburbs influenced the decline of Cleveland’s blue-collar jobs, property taxes, municipal services, neighborhoods, public schools and population after World War II. These changes affected all ethnic groups but had the greatest impact on the city’s black community which was primarily employed in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs in factories. In addition, CPS and unions excluded black students from training in vocational-technical schools for skilled, better paying jobs. African Americans were the city’s only population group that became older, larger, and more segregated as a result of racism in the public schools, housing, employment and banking. The city’s decline and racial conflicts negatively affected the operation and performance of the CPS. White parents resented the loss of their neighborhood schools and racial integration that occurred with the federal court order for racial desegregation. They transferred their children to private schools or moved to racially segregated suburbs. With the construction of surplus housing, particularly in Cleveland’s suburbs, white residents moved with the assistance – unavailable to black residents – of FHA, VA, and bank loans to outer-ring suburbs and exurbs after the war. Black middle-class families similarly took advantage of fair housing and migrated to inner-ring suburbs.
Integration became even more elusive as black enrollment in CPS increased from 58% in 1976 to 71% in 1994. With the disappearance of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, Cleveland became increasingly populated by impoverished residents with a low level of education and dependent on welfare. Employment in the growing technical-service economy required secondary and post-secondary degrees at minimum, but almost 50% of CPS students failed to graduate. Performance on reading-comprehension tests became poorer the longer students remained in school. Attendance at the junior and senior high divisions was the second worst in the state. Single female-headed, impoverished families became the norm for most students. In 1986, only 37% of the city’s adults had a secondary education. Nancy Oakley, the director of Project Learn, estimated that 47,000 illiterate persons lived in Cleveland.
The advent of tax abatement to attract and anchor the city’s businesses and public financing of private schools furthered eroded support of CPS. Yet despite the loss of tax revenue from tax abatements for downtown projects, the Cleveland School Board refused to close schools and to make necessary financial cuts to balance the budget. The state superintendent predicted a school deficit of $55 million by 1993 and $114 million by the following year. The state controlling board approved a $75 million emergency loan without state receivership of the schools. The school board promised to ask the public for additional funds.
In 1991 Mayor White successfully campaigned for a reform slate to become the majority of the school board. John Sanders, the new state superintendent, endorsed the proposal for a state takeover. Governor Voinovich also proposed a plan to appoint the state school board rather than allow the public to elect its members. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit to equalize school funding in Ohio, the governor advocated taking funds from wealthy school districts for redistribution to poorer areas and to allow parents to use school vouchers to attend schools of their choice.
Supported by the new school board, Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish proposed "Vision 21" as a plan to renew the educational system during the summer of 1993. It made crosstown busing voluntary so parents could choose either magnet or community-based schools. Special reading and conflict resolution programs were also emphasized. Cleveland's NAACP praised the plan and advocated greater emphasis on the educational program than on busing, since the overwhelming majority of students were African American. But fears and conflicts arose over the high cost of more than $90 million per year to finance the plan and its possible negative impact on desegregation. Critics also argued that Superintendent Parrish was too distant from the financial and administrative operation of the school system. Parents and teachers also felt that they were not consulted about what was needed to improve the schools. After the failure of another school levy in May 1994, the school board angered parents by threatening to eliminate 300 to 400 employees to prevent a $51 million dollar deficit. Despite the threat of severe cuts, the public refused to pass another levy in Nov. 1994.
With a budget of $500 million, the district's debt was 25% higher than other large school systems in the state. Another levy was cancelled after Parrish resigned in Feb. 1995, as a result of conflicts with Mayor White and the school board and the imminent state takeover. After the death of Judge Battisti in Oct. 1994, Judge Robert Krupansky was appointed to oversee the desegregation case. In May 1994 Judge Battisti had announced that the schools would be self-governing by the year 2000 and accepted "Vision 21" as the blueprint for the future. Judge Krupansky initially gave the impression that the district would be gradually relieved from busing, but in Feb. 1995 he ordered a state take-over in the face of the financial woes and administrative chaos that had subverted the court's remedial orders for desegregation of the school system. The state superintendent was empowered to seek a $29 million loan and to appoint a new superintendent of CPS. The court cited the school district's inability to account for the use of previous state funds as evidence of financial mismanagement. It was ordered to close 14 schools to help remedy the deficit.
The turmoil at CPS led to radical changes in their administration and control, with the second half of the 1990s witnessing several new initiatives that affected struggling public schools. In 1995, Ohio approved a school voucher program and allocated $5.5 million to provide vouchers of up to $2,250 to allow students to attend private independent or religious schools beginning in the fall of 1996. That November, voters passed a 13.5-mill operating levy, the first since 1983. In the summer of 1997, the Ohio state government approved House Bill 239, vesting Cleveland’s mayor with control of the city schools, a move opposed by the Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the NAACP. In March of 1998, Judge White declared that U.S. federal court oversight of the school district would end in July 2000. The voucher program also stirred heated opposition from the teachers union and civil libertarian organizations and faced repeated judicial challenges. By April 1999, the district had established 10 charter schools and organized a lottery to limit the number of eligible students due to budgetary constraints. After opponents argued that vouchers violated the Constitution’s separation of church and state, the ACLU filed a successful suit in federal court. However, in December 1999, a federal appeals court ruled that the program was constitutional and reversed a lower court’s favorable decision. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris would uphold the voucher program as constitutional.In September 1998, shortly after the federal court ruled that CPS were unitary and free of judicial control, Ohio’s state legislature placed the system under mayoral control. This allowed the mayor to select a board of trustees who appointed a director or CEO for CPS. In November 1998, they appointed Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a respected educator from New York City, as the first CEO. However, controversy developed with the revelation that student attendance figures were inflated during her tenure. CEO Byrd-Bennett fired 800 teachers but an investigation found that 206 spare bus drivers were maintained but not used, at an annual cost of $3.5 million. A state audit recommended tighter control of the school budget.
Faced with failure of two tax levies and conflicts over bonus remuneration beyond her annual salary of $278,000, Byrd-Bennett resigned in 2006. Student population actually declined by 20,000 during her tenure at CPS. In 2007, CEO Eric S. Gordon organized “The Cleveland Plan for Transforming the Schools,” passed by the state legislature, to lessen outside control and achieve the following purposes: increase the number of high performing traditional and charter schools; close and replace failing schools; support systemic reform from preschool to college and career tracks; concentrate the district’s central office on supporting governance; and assure accountability by creating the Cleveland Transformation Alliance. In 2009, CPS had the third highest dropout rate (66%) in the nation. The city’s current generation of youth face an almost jobless future without degrees and marketable skills in a postindustrial economy. As employment and school attendance declined, the rate of incarceration for Cleveland’s black youth increased. Responding to decline in student enrollment and challenge of private charter schools, the school board changed its name to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) in the hopes of attracting students on a county-wide basis. Assisted by a coalition of public school supporters, Mayor Frank Jackson and CEO Gordon passed a 15-mill school levy in 2015-16. They promised improvement in student performance if the public supported $1.2 billion school building construction and replacement levies. That year CMSD’s enrollment stood at 38,700 students with a graduation rate of just over 50%. “The Cleveland Plan” measured progress in student achievement by rates of graduation and performance on standardized tests. It aims “to ensure that every child in Cleveland has a multitude of great schools from which students can choose.” The district focuses on increasing the number of high performing schools, including 18 charter schools in the system as of 2020.
In 2015, the Trial Urban District Assessment found that CMSD made progress with African American and Hispanic students. Test scores of eighth grade black students increased by 6 points. However, a gap still existed between white and black male students, with graduation rates of 34% and 28% respectively. Differences between academic performance and graduation rates of black and Hispanic male students and their white male counterparts are still significant. In 2011, Ohio’s graduation for white students was 80%, compared to 62% for Hispanic students and 54% for black students. In 2013, National Assessment of Education Progress, a federal program, found students in Cleveland’s public school district ranked second to last in the nation in reading and math; only Detroit’s students were worse. In 2012, Sandra Williams, a state legislator, declared that since 99.97% of students in CPS lived in poverty, essentially the entire student body could apply for free meals.
Cleveland adopted new online tests based on Common Core Standards, a program instituted in 45 states to measure student achievement. It also negotiated a new contract for teachers that awarded pay raises based on merit or performance of students, not the traditional criteria of years of service or seniority. In 2016, Cleveland’s public schools ranked fourth worst in the state and last out of eight urban districts despite its improvement plan. It earned a C grade for students learning the expected amount in a school year, but the majority did not pass state standards for their grade levels. In 2017, Cleveland Public Schools’ graduation rate increased to more than 60%. Critics questioned whether the improvement was a response to the new employment contract for improving educational performance of schools that can de-certify schools and fire teachers with unacceptable failure rates. They pointed to statistics that only 7-8% of the school system's current students passed at their grade level in the state-mandated exams under Common Core Standards. In 2018, Cleveland passed only one of the 24 state standards for public education. That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s survey of 19 school districts in the nation ranked Cleveland the worst, with 40% of its public school students either attempting or considering suicide. Most graduates have to enroll in developmental education courses at CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE and CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY to remedy their academic deficiencies before enrolling in traditional classes. The majority of entrants do not graduate from college.
Shortcomings of Cleveland’s public schools are the result of confused and conflicted priorities; poverty and racial or social segregation; short-lived dysfunctional educational campaigns; mass education that ignores developmental needs for individualized learning of students with different abilities; debilitating political conflicts and self-serving agendas among interest groups and employees in the educational system; and the reluctance by both government and the public to bear the responsibility of providing a system of universal education that benefits all students. Not enough energy and resources from Cleveland’s school system have been channeled into programs that support or benefit teachers and students and make appreciable differences in their lives. Parents and teachers are now rebelling against the unilateral, top-down imposition of reformist agendas for austerity in public education and quantification (testing) of the educational process. Ohio’s charter schools have been plagued with fiscal malfeasance, corruption, and poor performance. In 1997, Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s system of property taxation to fund its public schools is inequitable and unconstitutional, yet the situation has gone unresolved. The condition of public education reveals society’s values and priorities. What improved schools in the past was the educational system’s willingness to meet needs, abilities and interests of different learners. Support for public schools was motivated by the belief that education was more important than any institution outside the family. This belief appears to be sadly lacking in today’s society.
Edward M. Miggins
Cuyahoga Community College (Retired)
Edward M. Miggins, “Businessman, Pedagogues and Progressive Reform: The Cleveland Foundation’s 1915 School Survey” (Ph. D.: Case Western Reserve University, 1975).
Edward M. Miggins, “The Search for the One Best System: The Cleveland Public Schools and Educational Reform, 1836-1920,” in David Van Tassel and John Grabowski, Cleveland: A Tradition of Reform (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1986), 135-155.
Edward M. Miggins, “‘No Crystal Stair’: The Struggle for Equality in the Cleveland Public Schools, 1900-1930,” Journal of Urban History (July 2014).
Donna M. Whyte, “The Struggle for Desegregation in Cleveland Public Schools,” in Ronnie Dunn, ed., Boycotts, Busing and Beyond: The History of School Desegregation in the Urban North (Kendell Hunt Publishing, 2016).
See also EDUCATION.