Jackson said he needs to take drastic action to win political support for more funding for the Cleveland school system, which is teetering on the edge of insolvency, faces a $65 million projected deficit and is among the state’s lowest performing school districts. In the past 10 years, city school enrollment has plummeted by 30,000, with students either moving out of the city or into public charter schools.
“I want a longer school year, flexible days, preschool — all that costs money,” said Jackson, who intends to seek a new school tax in November. “The only way we can get a levy is to demonstrate to people that they will be paying for something that’s different.”
Mayors are not only wrestling with immediate budget shortfalls but see a pension crisis looming ahead.
“Almost all the major districts have hidden huge costs in terms of pensions,” said Kenneth Wong, a political scientist at Brown University who studies mayoral control of urban schools. “The mayors are beginning to realize there is no way the current tax base can support current operations and also deal with pension liability. This is a huge factor in why we see mayors getting more involved.”
The two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are showing some flexibility by supporting some previously untouchable reforms, such as teacher evaluations. And some local unions in cities such as Baltimore; New Haven, Conn.; and Hillsborough County, Fla., have agreed to embrace some reforms.
Locally, the teachers union in Montgomery County has long collaborated with the administration. Teachers and principals work together to evaluate educators, identifying weak teachers who need extra support and dismissing those who cannot improve. The 12-year-old program has been held up by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for labor-management cooperation.
But so far, they’re the exception.
“The problem is the teachers unions are decentralized, so you’ve got people on the national level saying one thing, but on the local level, the leaders are older, activist teachers who tend not to want much change,” said one former national labor leader who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly about another union. “Rather than having a national strategy for improving quality, they’re on the defensive.”
Still, the mayors face some political risks from the unions, which remain heavy Democratic donors on the state and national level.
In addition to Fenty in D.C., Villaraigosa has also felt the wrath of the unions in Los Angeles. His pick for school board was defeated last spring by a candidate backed by the union. The union and the school board both pushed back against the mayor’s attempt to win direct controls of the schools.
Confrontations between teachers and mayors come as the public has grown cool toward teachers unions. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 47 percent of respondents said teachers unions hurt the quality of education, while 26 percent said they helped. That 2-to-1 margin is a new high point since Gallup began asking the question in 1976.
“In education, most people believe they aren’t getting anything anymore,” said Ester Fuchs, an expert in urban politics who teaches at Columbia University and has worked in the Bloomberg administration in New York City. “If teacher unions stand in the way of trying new things, they’re going to be an easy political target.”
Democrats are still more likely to back teachers unions than Republicans and independents, Gallup found.
While most public school teachers belong to a union, just 7 percent of private-sector workers do, making it harder for the public to support pensions, tenure and other benefits they don’t enjoy in their own jobs.
“The teachers unions lost the battle of the op-ed pages,” Kerchner said. “Up until Randi (Weingarten), there hasn’t been a prominent voice making the case that what’s good for teachers is also good for kids is good for America . . . They’ve lost intellectual leadership on the one hand, and on the other hand, they’re engaged in a political blocking game. It’s a legitimate tactic, but not one you can use without cost.”
Polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.