There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about Dayton Public Schools during the last year. Seldom does a week pass without a front-page article or an editorial describing the profound challenges facing the district.
With the defeat of last May's levy, the district confronts serious financial problems. The uncertainty and sense of alarm are exacerbated by the void created by the looming departure of popular Superintendent Percy Mack to South Carolina (see here). The district's future is unsettled and things could get worse before they get any better for its 16,000 students.
Less noticed, however, is what's happening with Dayton's charter schools. The lack of attention is surprising, as Dayton's charter schools now serve more than 7,000 students. (If all Dayton charter students were in one school district, it would be Montgomery County's fifth-largest district).
Just as with Dayton Public Schools, Dayton's charter schools serve the area's neediest children, and they are undergoing their own shake-up. For the first time since charter schools opened in 1998, Dayton will have fewer charter schools operating at the start of the new school year than it had at the close of the previous one. At least four small, independently operated charters have closed or will close this year.
The Rhea Academy and the Colin Powell Leadership Academy are already closed, and the Omega School of Excellence and the East End Community School will close in June. One new school is expected to open during the summer, so it looks as if Dayton will go from 34 charter schools operating in August 2007 to 31 in September 2008.
The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (see here) has sponsored the Omega School of Excellence and the East End Community School in Dayton. As such, we are working closely with leadership at both schools to ensure their orderly shuttering.
These two school closures, unlike others that have made headlines across the state, were not brought on by malfeasance or incompetence. The closures are largely the result of competition. Both schools had to compete for children-and the state dollars that follow them-against other charter schools, against the Dayton Public Schools, and against private schools receiving state vouchers. Dayton, in fact, is a hot-bed of school choice, and, as the city continues to shrink, these schools are competing for fewer and fewer children.
Meanwhile, parents want decent facilities. Dayton Public Schools are in the midst of a $600 million-plus school construction spree, while the largest charter schools have bright new buildings constructed with private dollars. Charter schools do not receive public dollars for school facilities; so small independent charter schools face serious facility challenges. Leaders of the East End Community School decided it was in the best interest of their students to merge with Dayton Public Schools as part of the spanking-new Ruskin Elementary School. This marriage of convenience followed from the fact that the district had a new building that it needed to fill with pupils, while East End had students but no suitable facility.
The Omega School of Excellence was never able to enroll many more than 200 students, and, in recent years, it struggled to enroll 100 students. The school's leadership faced grave financial uncertainties going into the 2008-2009 school year, and rather than roll the dice and hope for the best, they made the hard, but honorable, decision to close.
That Dayton's public education sector is in flux is a reflection of how markets work, which is not how the United States has traditionally viewed schooling. While many find it unsettling and troubling, there is also opportunity here. In cities like Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, and Cleveland, the conversations around public schools now center on how districts and charters can collaborate-without surrendering the existence of markets and choices.
The stage now is set for Dayton to start its own conversation, and the lessons learned matter to other urban districts in Ohio.
This editorial was published as an op-ed May 30 in the Dayton Daily News (see here).