The following letter was sent by Rich DeColibus, former president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, to Lena Pogrebinsky, a current candidate for CTU President.  It it originally appeared on Kathie Bracy’s Blog and we kindly thank her for giving us permission to reprint it here at Plunderbund.


February 25, 2014

Dear Ms. Pogrebinsky,

I obtained the 14-page summary of the Cleveland Plan and read it through.  A few things seem to stand out.  For example, it reads like it was written by the Koch brothers.  An early quote says, “Public education has been shackled by so much – by legal restrictions, bureaucracy, work rules, traditions and the influence of our shared experience growing up in an America not yet attuned to the intensity of global competition.”  While I’m not sure which “legal restrictions” with reference to public education are so awful, my understanding is they prevented bad things from happening and insisted good things do happen, like operating within a balanced budget, mandating so many school days per year, and the like.  Why this is all considered evil I do not understand.

The Plan, to put it simply, is a grandiose and extensive expansion of the old attack phrase “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”  According to the Plan, everything bad is the teacher’s fault, and unless and until we take away every benefit and basic right of teachers to be considered professionals, and treated as such, student performance will continue to be unsatisfactory.  Only when teachers are viewed as worthless serfs, denied any input into the terms and conditions of their working lives, will students suddenly bloom and prosper (it’s MAGIC) and achieve great academic success.  The fact this claim runs counter to all human psychology, not to mention common sense, seems to have been missed in the self-congratulatory attitude:  This is THE PLAN and isn’t it grand!  For a similar claim, Google “cold fusion.”

But the real intent is elegantly hidden in plain sight:  The use of the term “work rules.”  This is coded talk to attack the CTU in particular, and unions in general.  Unions have an Agreement with management which defines what management can and cannot do with respect to wages and the terms and conditions of employment.  Management hates the Agreement, and doesn’t think much more of unions; they are tolerated because unions can decide not to go to work one day if they don’t like the terms of a newly proposed Agreement.  It’s called a strike.  Without that threat of action, why would they even talk to anyone from a union?   Correct, they wouldn’t.  Management’s ability to self-convince itself it is omniscient rarely encourages a reality check.

There is nothing wrong with some of the schools the Plan envisions; an Urban Cooperative School, a Residential Boarding School, a Career Technical Academy or an English Immersion School are all fine concepts.  Whether they ever get funded or not remains to be seen.  More to the point, none of them needs the Agreement to be modified in any negative way for them to be successful.

The Plan also indulges in a lot of rhetorical comments which do not ring true.  It states, “Fundamentally, schools in Cleveland must break the one-size-fits-all premise of today’s education system.”  Really?  Maybe things have changed in the last ten years, but in the 35 years I spent as part of Cleveland Public Schools (or whichever name it is this year), nobody thought one size fitted all.  We had magnets, specialty schools, vocational schools, every high school had it’s own ambience and atmosphere, and elementaries were as different as the principals running them.  Apparently, one must create a straw man before attacking it with unbridled enthusiastic vigor.

Especially interesting was page 5’s assertion students are essentially “victims” and the fact some of them come from really bad and violent neighborhoods, or live in homes where the parent has made some disturbingly unhealthy and unwise choices about whom s/he associates with, are mere “challenges,” to be swept away with a wave of the hand.  A lot of Cleveland’s students are indeed victims, but the school isn’t doing the victimizing, it’s the rest of the student’s life which derails the individual.  The math is simple.  A student spends about 30 hours a week in school, and 138 hours a week someplace else, except in summer when, for most students, all hours in a week are someplace else.  Put another way, the student spends about one-fifth of his time in school, and four-fifths of his time elsewhere.  Schools should, indeed, do all they can to make education a positive experience, but it defies reality to pretend those other hours do not exist or they don’t matter.

While I read the newly-bargained CTU-CPS Agreement, I lack the specific knowledge of how some items will work operationally.  However, nothing struck me as being favorable to CTU members or improved their ability to be successful in the classroom.  Actually, it mostly looked like a big reversal of the protections the CTU spent fifty years putting into the Agreement in the first place.  No point in dwelling on it, what’s done is done; there are other upcoming disasters on the radar screen, like Student Based Budgeting (SBB), another attempt to eviscerate the Agreement to the equivalent of toilet paper.

What the Plan really signifies is a state-wide attack on all teacher unions and associations, using the Cleveland Plan as the perfect school-reform model.  The fact the Plan will do very little, if anything, to improve student performance will not be allowed to impede the sacred task of rendering all teacher unions in the state de minimus.  And, it gets better.  In January of 2015, there’s going to be a concerted push by conservative Republicans to enact right to work legislation in the state; the proof of this is in the repeated denials that, “Right to work is not on our agenda.”  It isn’t, that’s true, but only because they’re not past the November elections yet.  See, it’s not just teacher unions they dislike; they are intent on attacking all unions in the state.  And, yes, they won’t make the Senate Bill 5/Issue 2 mistake again; the legislation will be crafted in such a way that a citizen petition and election referendum on it will not be possible.  The goal is to become the new Mississippi; Cleveland just gets to be first in the new world order.  Lucky you.

Rich DeColibus

Rich DeColibus is a retired teacher from the Cleveland Public Schools and former president of the Cleveland Teachers Union.