Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley Wants to Be Ohio’s Next Governor. But Her City’s Schools Might Not Let Her

Courtesy of Nan Whaley
Nan Whaley, the 41-year-old Democratic mayor of Dayton, is one of the fastest-rising stars in Ohio politics. Elected in 2013 to lead the scuffling city out of its post-industrial malaise, she has been credited with leading a development revival downtown and is running for re-election unopposed. But municipal office rarely satisfies talented politicians for long, so few were surprised when she announced her candidacy in Ohio’s 2018 governor’s race. After several years of being touted as a gubernatorial prospect, Whaley is now vying for an open seat in a year that some Republicans are already dreading — and facing a primary field devoid of big names.

There’s just one hitch: Though she began her mayoralty pledging to mend the city’s dismal school system, early returns haven’t been encouraging. Students in Dayton received the worst test scores in Ohio in 2016, and the district earned a slew of Fs on its latest state report card.

Making matters worse, tension between the district and the city’s equally lackluster charter school sector has stirred up discontent among local parents and educators and left an opening for potential rivals. Former presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, for example, is using the issue to vault back into regional headlines, stopping in the area during a statewide anti-charter-school bus tour that local observers believe may be the beginning of a gubernatorial run.

Even if Whaley dodges a challenge to her left and wins the Democratic nomination, a Republican challenger will be able to point, with justification, to data showing that Dayton schools have made little progress during her administration.

Education “seemed like it was the big priority” of Whaley’s 2013 campaign, says Kathryn Mullen Upton of the Dayton-based Fordham Foundation, which sponsors several local charter schools. “But when you look at straight-up numbers, are the results of DPS and the charters here any better than they were at the beginning of her term? Speaking off the top of my head, the needle has not moved much.”

A history of neglect

“Before Nan’s administration, there was no real emphasis on the fact that we have an education problem in this city and we have to do certain things to address it,” says Mullen Upton. “The sense was, ‘We’ll leave the school stuff to the schools, and we’ll just handle the city stuff.’ ”

Like her predecessors, Whaley was hobbled by Dayton’s council-manager system of municipal government, which invests many traditional mayoral powers in an unelected city manager. Dayton’s weaker chief executives have historically allowed the city’s elected school board to take the lead.

Whaley attempted to wield greater influence in 2014 by creating the City of Learners Committee, a working group of 70 leaders from local schools, businesses, and philanthropies that has issued guidance on how to fix education in Dayton. Several committee recommendations have already been adopted, including the use of federal grants to establish summer learning programs and the expansion of student mentoring initiatives. Most impressive by far, Whaley and her allies helped persuade city voters to approve an income tax increase last year to fund high-quality preschool for all city 4-year-olds.

“Nan recognizes that it’s not the schools’ problem, it’s not the businesses’ problem, it’s not the parents’ problem — it’s everybody’s responsibility,” says Mike Parks, president of the Dayton Foundation and a member of the committee. “And she’s done a great job bringing everybody together and saying, ‘Let’s check the blame at the door and worry about the kids.’ ”

In spite of her efforts, however, the Ohio Department of Education gave nearly all city schools failing grades for achievement on its most recent school report card, along with similarly low marks for high school graduation rate, gap closing, and third-grade literacy. Statewide, Dayton ranks near the bottom of Ohio’s 610 school districts.

Unhealthy competition

Students in Dayton’s charter school sector — one of the most charter-saturated in the United States, enrolling nearly one-third of the city’s roughly 23,000 school-age children — have fared no better. In a comprehensive 2014 study of charter school performance across Ohio, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that “learning gains in both reading and math in Dayton do not differ significantly from [traditional public school] students.”

Poor academics aren’t the only problem: Local newspapers are replete with tales of fraud and mismanagement, reflecting Ohio’s status as the “Wild West” of charter schooling.

“The charter school movement in Ohio didn’t put enough emphasis on quality,” says Tom Lasley, the former longtime head of the University of Dayton’s education school and CEO of local education advocacy group Learn to Earn. “Rather than creating high-performing charters that put pressure on the district to increase its quality, you had parents putting their kids in schools that were sometimes even worse.”

One of the first initiatives to come out of Whaley’s City of Learners effort was a High Quality Schools Committee to rate individual schools and push for improvements. The first City of Learners action report in 2015 specifically listed the recruitment of a high-quality charter network like Success Academy as a possible “turnaround solution.”

But, “It’s not like we went from one or two really great charters to 10,” Mullen Upton says. “I haven’t seen a ton of change at the district level or the charter level. I don’t think that’s from lack of trying — there are folks in both sectors who are trying to make a difference. But when you talk about moving whole systems of schools, it takes a lot of people and it takes cooperation. It’s a tough lift.”

The underwhelming performance of local charters has sown distrust among Dayton educators and parents, which Whaley’s potential Democratic rivals could easily exploit. Kucinich, for one, recently decried charter schools as a “multi-billion-dollar boondoggle” and declared that his mission was to “save our public school system.”

Asked for comment on Kucinich’s remarks, as well as the mayor’s education record, a spokesman wrote, “Nan brought together the community — teachers, businesses, leaders, labor — to build partnerships and talk about how the group envisioned education for our kids. Nan is dedicated to fostering partnerships to ensure all of Ohio’s kids succeed.”

Whaley has made clear that she favors a comprehensive strategy of embracing schools from all sectors, so long as they deliver results. In her preface to the City of Learners action report, she wrote that she intended to “ ‘turn around’ the lowest-performing Dayton schools — whether they’re traditional public schools, private schools, or public charters.” But scandals and underperformance, topped off by anti-charter rhetoric from the left, could blunt the effectiveness of an “all of the above” message.

If Whaley wins the Democratic primary, a campaign against a Republican in the general election could get even more heated. The GOP primary field is top-heavy with big, charter-friendly names. Attorney General Mike DeWine has lavished praise on Cleveland’s Breakthrough charter network and accepted huge donations from organizations like White Hat Management, an Akron-based charter operator. Secretary of State Jon Husted, formerly a Dayton representative in the Ohio House of Representatives, helped write and pass virtually every important charter school bill in Ohio’s history and remains a staunch advocate of school choice.

For Whaley, who has struggled mightily to turn around a school system over which she has no statutory control, the verdicts on her efforts that emerge from those contests may determine far more than Dayton’s next district report card.

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