No Longer the Only Game in Town: Helping Traditional Public Schools Compete

Christine Campbell, Michael DeArmond, Kacey Guin, and Deborah Warnock
Center on Reinventing Public Education
September 2006

This report provides two case studies on how traditional school district leaders are responding to the challenges of choice and competition. The districts selected for study are Dayton and Milwaukee, both because of their commonalities (declining enrollment as students opt for schools of choice, and large numbers of poor and minority pupils,) and because of their differences. Milwaukee's district is large, its management is decentralized, and its schools aren't shielded from financial realities because dollars tend to follow students to their school of choice; Dayton's school system is small with centralized management and schools are largely shielded from financial realities because school funding is based on programs and teachers, not enrollment. Because it's aimed at traditional school leaders, the report reads like a primer on market economies. Thus: "a district and its schools need to know where they stand in the market" and "principals [should] pay attention to the demands of choice." This won't be news to reformers. They may, however, appreciate the analysis of how Milwaukee's and Dayton's different district management strategies affect how the districts respond to reform pressures. In Milwaukee, for instance, where principals have considerable latitude in hiring staff and setting budgets, the district has "answered choice with choice" by creating neighborhood schools, district sponsored charter schools, partnership schools, new small high schools, etc. Because dollars are closely tied to students, a parent's decision to leave traditional schools has an immediate and profound effect on principals and their budgets. They're forced to innovate. In Dayton, by contrast, the district controls funding, thereby buffering schools (and their principals) from the economic impact of students exiting. Instead of offering more education options, Dayton is trying to win back students by constructing handsome new buildings and re-establishing schools as neighborhood centers. At this point, it's a toss-up about which strategy--if either--will work better. While it's no clarion call for school improvement, this piece is still worth sharing with an embattled superintendent near you. Read it here.

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