Competition from charter schools is spurring one of Ohio's most troubled urban districts, Dayton Public Schools (DPS), to improve.

So says a new report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), which examined the methods employed by DPS and Wisconsin's Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to respond to the competitive school markets they are in.

Dayton charters are putting considerable pressure on DPS.  More than 6,300 of the city's 22,000 schoolchildren (28 percent) attend charter schools. Percentage-wise, only New Orleans, whose traditional public school district was decimated by Hurricane Katrina, has more according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (see here).

Worse for DPS is the fact that in 2005-2006, Dayton's charter schools outperformed district schools in math and reading at almost every grade level (see here). At the sixth- and eighth-grade levels, gaps between charter and district proficiency levels were in the double digits.

Faced with such grim numbers, DPS has responded with fresh school and program choices of its own, as well as a serious focus on student achievement. New options include single-sex schools, the Dayton Early College Academy, and most recently the Dayton Technology Design High School. DPS has also implemented a highly centralized administrative model meant to coordinate curriculum and classroom instruction in schools across the district.

Though district leaders are loath to admit it, DPS staff surveyed in the report acknowledge their approach to educating the districts' students has changed because of competition. One DPS principal remarked, "School choice has really put an emphasis on what we do as we serve the public, how we service our students, and how we represent the district because of the competition."

Hardened skeptics should consider similar findings in Wisconsin. MPS, also facing a highly competitive school choice market, opted to respond to choice with choice--but in greater numbers. The district began offering students a slew of new schools and programs that directly compete with the city's charters. With more program opportunities also came an emphasis on student recruitment and a decentralized governing model that handed flexibility and autonomy to individual schools and principals.

Despite their different approaches, both districts are paying closer attention to achievement data and parent concerns, taking school oversight seriously, and giving families greater choices in programs. As a result, MPS has seen its enrollment numbers stabilize and test scores improve. Whether DPS can stem the tide of students leaving for charter schools is still up for debate, but the district's recent move to Continuous Improvement on the state's report card is encouraging.

Bottom line, many measures DPS and MPS have taken to compete with charter schools look a lot like those that help schools improve overall--a strong indication that school choice is working for students in Dayton (and beyond).

"Charter Schools in Ohio Gaining More Public Students," The Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 12, 2006.

Download CRPE's report here.

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