Late on Friday afternoon of a 3-day holiday weekend (long considered a prime slot for important news…), the Governor held a news conference with the usual cast of Cleveland Plan characters to announce that compromises has been reached (again).  And this time it’s for real (again — on Friday afternoon in Cleveland, not the Statehouse).

Cleveland’s NewsChannel5 states the Governor “is promising that the legislation will pass” while the Cleveland Plain Dealer says “Kasich guaranteed on Friday that the legislation would pass.”

From our vantage point, nothing could be further from the truth.  This bill could have passed weeks ago if it had any merit and any authentic support from the legislators.  The reality here is that this plan has reached compromises on multiple occasions previously, each time supposedly clearing the way for easy adoption.  Instead, the bill never even came up for vote in the House Education Committee this spring and won’t be reconsidered until the committee meets again on June 12.  As we peel back the story and timeline of this bill, we reveal missed opportunities for the legislature to pick up momentum, most notably by the Senate co-sponsors, Peggy Lehner and Nina Turner.

The Cleveland Plan was originally published by Mayor Jackson nearly four months ago on February 2.  It was delivered to the Governor and the leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate, but did not immediately pick up any sponsors until….

…a full two months later on April 4, when it was revealed that companion bills would be introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly after, according to co-sponsor Nina Turner said “the bill reflects a number of compromises reached through talks between Jackson, who runs the school district, and the union.” (Columbus Dispatch, 4/4/12)

And given the apparent sense of urgency by those involved in this process, you would think this bill would have gotten fast-tracked.

  • “I’m begging you as human beings to not let this go down the drain.” – Governor Kasich
  • “Doing nothing is unacceptable, and this plan is a bold step towards creating the conditions for success for our children, our city, and our future.” – Nina Turner

Yet that did not happen.  Instead of taking up the bills in both chambers concurrently to hasten the process, the Senate Education Committee never scheduled a hearing for their version of the plan, SB335.  Originally introduced as SB325, a modified version of the Cleveland Plan, SB335, was introduced three weeks later after more compromises took place outside of the legislature’s control.  HB525 was also introduced on that same date, April 24, now 2 1/2 months after the original plan was published.

Then, on May 1, House Bill 525 was finally introduced in the House Education Committee.  That afforded them 4 full weeks until the Memorial Day weekend to get it passed and to the floor for a vote.  A slam dunk for the Cleveland Plan seemed obvious.  But then a strange thing happened — the committee only met once during that week.  And then only once (May 9) during the following week.  And when the next week rolled around, the Governor’s education reform bill (SB316) had taken center stage in the committee and the news, relegating the Cleveland Plan to second fiddle in the committee’s discussions.

And even stranger for a bill that is supposedly vital to the survival of Cleveland, the Senate Education Committee made even less progress on SB335 over the same span of time as they also focused on SB316 and a one-day-a-week schedule that was mostly a result of the packed slate of legislation that was creating major scheduling conflicts for all of the Senate committees.

In the end, Memorial Day weekend arrived without either committee arriving at a vote on the Cleveland Plan, delaying it for at least two more weeks until the General Assembly returns (much to their dismay).  But when they return, we shouldn’t expect to see this Cleveland Plan wrap up any time soon, if it ever does.

By comparison, in March of last year the Teach for America legislation was heard in both chambers’ education committees as HB21 and SB81.  They both passed floor votes on March 22, permitting a turnaround of three weeks until concurrence on the final language.  That was also a busy time at the Statehouse as both SB5 and the Governor’s budget were being actively discussed.

But that’s not what has happened with the Cleveland Plan.  Instead, HB525 has been held up in the House Education Committee because they don’t like it, plain and simple.  The committee wants to institute massive changes to the legislation but is receiving pushback by the leadership in the House and the Senate, and now the Governor’s office.  So instead of kowtowing to the supposed authorities at the Statehouse and passing a bill they don’t agree with, committee Chair Gerald Stebelton isn’t bringing the bill up for a vote.

And who can blame him?  Check the footage and photographs of all of the news conferences and Cleveland Plan announcements that star Mayor Jackson, Governor Kasich, Senators Lehner & Turner, House Speaker Batchelder, Representatives Ron Amstutz, Armond Budish, and Sandra Williams.  House Education Committee Chair Stebelton is nowhere to be found.  In fact, not a single one of the 23 members of the committee seen or heard, most notably finding themselves excluded from the most recent announcement during which Governor Kasich “promised” and “guaranteed” their votes of support for the bill as he hugged outspoken Senator Nina Turner in a premature celebration of the bill’s passage.

Unless Kasich, Turner, and Jackson have somehow changed the process for how a bill becomes a law (found here on the House and Senate websites), the elected members of the separate committees and chambers still actually get to cast individual votes.  Chair Stebelton and his committee have every right to be insulted by Kasich’s guarantee of passage as it is demeaning to their work over the past month as they’ve done exactly what we would want them to do — take their time to consider whether a piece of legislation is in the best interest of all Ohioans.  Four weeks and 7 hearings later, the committee has yet to reach consensus, and it’s not Kasich’s place to direct them how to vote, regardless of the power he believes he wields in his party.

And lest we cast the blame solely on the House Education Committee, shouldn’t we also be asking why co-sponsors Lehner and Turner have been dragging their feet in the Senate?  Chairperson Lehner is the unquestioned leader of the Senate Education Committee and Turner is one of only 3 Democrats who share the dais with her (along with Sawyer and Schiavoni).  Without a hint of resistance, those two could have pushed to have the Cleveland Plan heard and passed out of committee with two weeks.  The fact that they have been reticent to do so is indicative of their own lack of faith in the plan as it currently exists.  If they truly backed this plan that they had sponsored they would have passed it and put greater pressure on the House to do likewise.  Instead, they have played the game of politics and made all of the right statements of undying support for this Cleveland Plan — most recently late on a Friday afternoon before the Memorial Day weekend, when few people were watching.

Look, I think the plan is crap, but I’ve been very consistent in that viewpoint from the outset.  But what I’m really wondering is when the legislators began to realize it, too.  It’s not politically correct to appear to put down the struggling Cleveland school district and that’s what the Cleveland Plan sponsors were hooked into believing they would be doing if they opposed this plan in the beginning.  But now as they have been manhandled by Mayor Frank Jackson who appears to have replaced Mary Taylor (Lt. Governor – remember her?) on the state’s hierarchy of leadership, I believe that they are now working to find a way to exit this process, and the key is Stebelton and the House Education Committee.

Their absence from the media spotlight is no accident.  By remaining in the shadows while meticulously dissecting the bill in committee, Stebelton provides the political “out” for his fellow legislators.  He can delay the bill long enough to expose its general irrelevancy in the first place.  As Jackson continues to tweak the Plan and engage in compromises with the teachers and community schools, the over-reaching HB525 becomes less and less important.  And within the next month the key sponsors, most notably Nina Turner, will work to back out of the process and point to local collaboration as being the reason the bill is no longer needed and supporting the local effort as supporting evidence for a request for a Cleveland schools levy.

And that will be the final nail in the coffin of the Cleveland Plan.