What makes a good public school system isn't a mystery. Think tanks and college-types have been studying this stuff for years. So when considering the rhetoric surrounding Issue 10 -- the emergency funding request for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) -- the ideal seems like a reasonable place to begin.
"The curriculum has to be sound ... what you are offering children must be of relevance," begins the list of public school essentials sited by Lionel Brown, assistant professor of Educational Studies and Leadership at the University of Cincinnati. "You must have teachers who are innovative, who are strong classroom managers who are able to deliver the curriculum and get students fully involved in the academic offerings that are in front of them. You need parent involvement. It's a must."
Brown describes the ideal public school system as also having "open lines of communication" among all parties, clean and functional buildings, the goal of education after high school and strong community support.
People outside Cincinnati see a lot of these qualities in CPS, and one person in particular, Joe Nathan, suggests that CPS could serve as a model for other districts. He represented the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for seven of the years it was involved with local schools and was so impressed he wrote an opinion piece for the The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune praising the district.
"Powerful progress in the Cincinnati Public Schools may help efforts to improve Minneapolis and St.
Paul public schools," Nathan wrote in 2007. "Despite its problems, CPS grew from a four-year, 51 percent high school graduation rate in 2000 to a four-year, 79 percent graduation rate in 2007. It also eliminated the graduation gap between white and African-American students. Graduation rates for all students increased. Cincinnati appears to be among the first (if not the first) major urban districts to eliminate this gap."
Apparently a victim of its own success -- the district improvements are good but not good enough for critics -- combined with an anti-public-school bias means CPS has a lot to overcome to convince voters to approve its request for a five-year 7.89-mill levy Tuesday. The $51.5 million raised annually will cover only a portion of the looming $72.8 million revenue shortfall anticipated in June 2009.
That battle frustrates Pam Green, who's involved with Parents for Public Schools (www.cincinnatipps.org).
"Everybody wants to talk about how bad Cincinnati public schools are," she says. "I'm not saying that there aren't real challenges in our school district ... but people need to know there's a lot of great things happening."
She points to the new superintendent search as an example.
"Anywhere you go that there's a board member, they are distributing superintendent surveys ... asking people what they're looking for," Green says. "There'll be some community forums to discuss what we want in the next superintendent."
Even if the levy passes, CPS will have to make approximately $28 million in cuts to balance the 2008-09 budget. Because of the state funding formula, the district is allowed to seek the funds it needs only from a levy.
"We're one of only six states that fund our schools this way," Green says. "Forty-four other states have changed their school funding formula. The levy system is set up to make it look like districts mismanage funds ... (and) creates a perception with voters of, 'We just gave them money three years ago and now here they are back again.'
"The last increase asked for was in 2000, and we had a renewal a few years ago. Take a look at what's happened since then -- gas is increased to $3 a gallon, look what's happened with heating costs, look at what's happened with health care costs."
State Rep. Tom Brinkman (R-Mount Washington), a leader of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), says the organization will actively fight the levy because the amount asked for is exorbitant. A self-titled politician by profession, Brinkman says the school district has enough money and that this is a management issue.
Some who oppose the levy frequently float the idea that letting the district fail and fall under the control of the state is the best way to implement essential reforms. Brown, who has studied urban education for 30 years, disagrees with the idea that withholding money is the way to address issues within the school district.
"I do not agree with that," Brown says. "When you say let a system fail, you are saying let children fail, it's OK to do that. I know there's a lot that has to be done ... at the same time, I don't think that we should make kids suffer by not supporting the levy.
"Great minds are in this city that can come together and fix some of the holes that are there. I would prefer to see things done in that direction and not in a direction of penalizing the kids and making the kids the victims of our decisions."
Green doesn't want to see kids punished, either. She says if the levy fails teaching positions will be cut, class sizes will increase and extracurricular activities will be eliminated -- the exact opposite of what's needed to continue improvements already gained.
"I think the kids at Cincinnati Public deserve the same things that the kids in the suburban schools get," she says. "This levy is absolutely critical to get that done."
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