It’s no secret that my colleagues and I at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have been critics of the Dayton Public Schools (DPS) over the past decade and have done our best--not good enough--to help create sound educational alternatives for kids whose prospects were blighted by the system’s disabilities.

This wasn’t ill-will, much less an animus toward public education. It was quite simply that DPS had languished for years as Ohio’s lowest performing public school district (618th out of 618); the district spent less than 50 percent of its budget on instruction, which included scant attention to academic achievement; and, despite clear signs of distress, it seemed all but immune to reform.

The Council of the Great City Schools, an advocate and support organization for large urban districts, succinctly summed up the situation in early 2002: “Dayton Public Schools are in crisis. Student achievement is low. Funding is tenuous. Buildings are dilapidated. And the public is clearly looking at its options. Without change, parents will find or create them. The warning signs are everywhere.”

Then things began to change. Today DPS is far from where it needs to get, but its performance is strengthening and important milestones are being passed. This gradual turnaround began when the reform-minded Kids First slate, led by Gail Littlejohn, took command of the school board five years ago and selected Dr. Percy Mack to serve as the district’s new superintendent.

Since that time, the Dayton Public Schools have made slow but steady progress toward academic achievement. The reform team has put into place a cohesive academic strategy; increased the amount of money targeted at instruction to more than 60 percent; raised test scores; and last year moved out of Academic Emergency (the state’s lowest academic rating) and up two notches to Continuous Improvement (the equivalent of a “C”). Responding both to academic common sense and to competition from area private and charter schools, DPS has created several new and innovative school programs like the all-girls Charity Adams School, Dayton Early College Academy and Dayton Technology Design High School. An awesome school-construction program is underway.

At the same time, DPS has also made some painful job cuts (the most recent announced this month) in an effort to right size its operation. And despite real pressure and strike threats from the Dayton Education Association, DPS board members have kept salaries within bounds. In tough fiscal times, laying employees off and reining in new spending, while manifestly unpleasant decisions, represent both competent leadership and good stewardship of taxpayer dollars. 

To remain on its reformist course, DPS now needs help from the city’s taxpayers. A 15-mill operating levy will be on the May ballot. The last levy was passed way back in 1992. If passed, the operating levy would provide Dayton Public Schools with an additional $30 million per year to continue its reform efforts, raise the quality of instruction in its schools, and secure the district’s finances. If it fails the district faces a litany of bad choices, and its future would be in doubt.

The reformers at the district’s helm have earned the opportunity to stay on course. Yes, Dayton voters and taxpayers, including the city’s business and civic leaders, will need to be vigilant as these dollars are spent. Many tough challenges lie ahead and nobody will benefit if the district slips back into its old ways. But some additional time is needed to turn this aircraft carrier. 

In 2005, the Council of the Great City Schools conducted a second review of DPS and its programs. The progress they saw was encouraging. “Understand,” the reviewers wrote, “that the district was very broken but it’s now on the mend. Improvement will take some time and considerable community involvement and support.” DPS leadership has been doing its part. Now it’s time for other Daytonians to do theirs.

A similar version of this editorial was featured in the February 6th issue of the Dayton Daily News.

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