The incredible shrinking Dayton

In the last decade the Dayton Public Schools (DPS) have contracted by more than 10,000 students; seeing enrollment decline from 24,916 students in 2000 to 14,393 students in 2009. During this same period Dayton has become one of the country’s leading charter school markets. 

Annually since 2006 the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has reported that Dayton is on its list of top 10 charter communities in the United States by market share. In 2009, Dayton is fifth on the list behind New Orleans; Washington, DC; Detroit; and Kansas City (see here).

Over the years such numbers and ratings have triggered angst and anger among district officials and their supporters. In 2007, for example, then DPS board president Yvonne Isaacs captured the feelings of many when she told a gathering of education journalists that “Over the nine years of charter schools in Dayton the district has lost $283 million that was transferred to charter schools. It would not have cost us nearly that much to educate 6,000 students, we believe” (see here).

But, there is more behind these numbers than meets the eye. Charters have played a role in draining DPS of students, but the city has lost even more children to the suburbs, other states, and private schools (1,568 children attend private schools in Dayton using a state-provided voucher), as illustrated in the chart below. Consider that in 2001 there were 25,638 Dayton students enrolled in public schools (22,590 in DPS and 3,048 in charters). In 2009, there were 19,621 Dayton students enrolled in public schools (14,393 in DPS and 5,228 in charters). In eight years total public-school enrollments shrank by some 6,017 students. But this decline has gone largely unnoticed and unmentioned.

Source: Ohio Department of Education interactive Local Report Card

This may be because the pain of losing students has been shared by the charters. Consider two of Dayton’s more established charter schools (both schools are sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation) – the Dayton Academy and the Dayton View Academy. In 2002, their enrollments were 977 and 819 students respectively. In 2009, their enrollments had declined to 706 and 631 students. Each school has lost about 25 percent of its students in seven years.

Further, student enrollment in charters peaked in 2006 when 6,403 Dayton students attended a charter. The number of charter school buildings operating in the city crested at 38 schools in 2005. At the start of this school year there were 29 charter schools in operation in Dayton.

With fewer charter schools in operation the overall academic performance of those left standing has steadily improved. Of the 55 Dayton schools (district and charter) to receive academic ratings from the Ohio Department of Education in 2009, 31 earned the equivalent of D or F (56 percent). Only two – both charter schools – earned an A. More remarkably, 61 percent of the students in Dayton charters in 2008-09 were in schools rated A, B, or C by the state while 74 percent of DPS students attended schools rated D or F (see here).

What’s surprising to school choice advocates is that the district results haven’t improved with the charters’. One of the central tenants of school choice is that competition will force all schools to improve but this simply hasn’t happened in Dayton. DPS student performance peaked in 2006 when the district was rated C by the state, and the overall performance of district students was superior to that of charter school students. Since then charter performance has steadily improved but the district’s hasn’t. Why?

We don’t know with any certainty what’s happening here as this is an area largely unstudied. It is possible that as charter schools have closed the neediest children (those furthest behind academically) have migrated back to the district. Or, flux within district leadership could be the cause (e.g., new school board members, a new superintendent, and transitions to new buildings). The Council of Great City Schools suggested earlier this year that during recent leadership changes “the administration may have taken its eyes off of the ball and lost its focus.” Or it may be a combination of these and other issues.

Regardless of the reasons for the district’s struggles, it is clear that Dayton is literally fighting for its survival. On its current trajectory, public education in Dayton is leading in one direction – to a city devoid of children, families, and hope. The city elected a new mayor on November 3 (see here). No one doubts that Mayor-elect Leitzell has a plate full of challenges in front of him, but one of the first he should look into is how to get the Dayton Public Schools and the city’s charters to work together to improve education as a means for keeping families and children in the city. Dayton simply cannot afford another decade of lost families and children.

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