The decisive recent levy defeat (by a margin of 58 to 42 percent) was indisputably a blow to the Dayton Public Schools (DPS), bringing grim fiscal realities that will force district leaders to scale back certain programs, curtail some activities and furlough a number of teachers and staff--much of this in less than two months.

Downsizing an organization is never easy and laying off scores of employees is truly wrenching. It’s harder still in the public sector, where contractual obligations, political pressures and community needs whipsaw executives seeking to make “rational” choices and do the “right thing”. These won’t be easy weeks for DPS leaders. Yet if they move thoughtfully and strategically, in the medium and long term Dayton could benefit educationally from the short-term agony. The challenge is to use the fiscal stress as leverage to focus on key priorities and rethink some long-time practices and assumptions.

That’s begun to happen in other cities. Consider Denver, where tight budgets, outdated procedures, restrictive contracts and a student exodus to other (especially charter) schools have prompted superintendent Michael Bennet (see here) and every single member of the school board to approach the community with an exciting future vision of a radically different kind of school system--one that would embrace choice, differentiate schools, empower principals, decentralize authority, create new career paths for teachers and foster greater transparency and accountability across the system. It would also reach out to high quality charter operators like KIPP and Achievement First for school partnerships.

Consider Chicago, where the city’s Renaissance 2010 program is reconstituting schools, outsourcing others and incorporating the “charter” principle in turning a centrally managed bureaucracy into something more akin to a “portfolio” of diverse schools. Or just look west down I-70 at the innovative education goings-on in Indianapolis, where Mayor Bart Peterson's office sponsors 16 charter schools and is working with local superintendents to open more in their districts (see here).

Dayton is smaller, yes, but it, too, could bring its public education system into the 21st century by rethinking district-school relations, the constructive (and competitive) uses of school choice, new ways of deploying and compensating personnel, and different approaches to management. We’re not talking “new programs”--i.e., the sort of thing that typically calls for extra money and additional layers. We’re talking about changing the way the community approaches its “core business” of educating the next generation. In the months ahead, DPS can start that ambitious makeover by affirming four key concepts:

  1.  Redoubling its academic progress in core subjects;
  2. Embracing school choice and developing mutually beneficial partnerships with quality charter and private schools;
  3. Giving principals the authority they need--especially over school budgets, personnel and instruction--to lead successful schools for whose results they are in turn held accountable; and
  4. Increasing parental and community buy-in, pointing toward future public support for additional resources.

This means that upcoming cuts in personnel and programs should be made with a scalpel, mindful of their impact on student learning. (Despite recent gains, fully half of DPS pupils are proficient in neither reading nor mathematics.) The district must strive to retain its best principals and teachers, signing these educators to new contracts that, for principals, offer greater operational and instructional autonomy in exchange for direct accountability. In doing so, district leaders must recognize that their top performers may not always be their longest-serving employees and that seniority must yield to performance if children are to benefit.

Rather than turning its back on school choice and charter schools, DPS should welcome them through the front door. Indeed, embracing and capitalizing on school choice in Dayton is both sound policy and a prerequisite for the district’s survival. DPS would do well to identify and protect those schools that have strong academic foundations and community buy-in--such as the all-girls Charity Adams Early Academy, the Dayton Early College Academy and World of Wonder School. They represent more than expanded schooling options; they also lay out a path that the district could tread and widen to meet the needs of the community. Parents who choose their children’s schools make a commitment--and the sooner the district recommits to them, the sooner its fiscal prospects will brighten.

DPS shouldn’t be shy about reaching out for help. In the short term, it should seek counsel from experts who can assist the district to develop a cost reduction strategy that maintains a focus on quality education. Longer term, it should seek partnerships with high-performing charter school operators and networks to see if they are game to take over the operation of some of the district’s most troubled (or expensive) schools. The district can also offer extant charter schools options, selling them specialized services like special education, business management, teacher development, even charter sponsorship. As we’ve noted before (see here), DPS could certainly bring in revenues and goodwill by negotiating facility agreements with quality charters--even private schools serving voucher-bearing children--that crave decent buildings. It could also partner with charter and private schools on sorely needed pre-K and after-school programs.

While playing smart defense, DPS should not shun an aggressive offense. For instance, the district could quarterback a community move to bring to Montgomery County a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) high school. Such a STEM school could be a place of innovation and excellence, benefiting secondary students across the county, while garnering community support, business partnerships and philanthropic (as well as state and federal) dollars. Arrangements could even be made to ensure that DPS teachers benefit by participating in shared professional development opportunities with STEM teachers and staff.

Many more examples could certainly be offered. There’s no denying that DPS has been handed a lemon. But with vision and determination, the result might yet be lemonade.

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