For the past several years, Akron Public Schools administrators have been engaged in an exercise they refer to as “right-sizing” the district. They have closed several school buildings and laid off staff members, including principals, teachers and custodians. The exercise is a necessary response to the steady decline in enrollment, the trend a reflection in part of population losses in Akron and across Northeast Ohio’s older industrial cities. The district, which in 1990 enrolled some 33,000 students, currently has roughly 22,000.
Last week, Jack Pierson, treasurer of the Akron schools, told the school board he projected a slowdown in the number of students leaving the district the next few years. That is a welcome piece of good news for a system that has struggled, with little apparent success, to hold onto its students and halt the outflow of funds from the district.
The student losses in the district have been as much, if not more, the result of Statehouse policies. As part of a national movement to hold schools accountable, the state legislature during the past 20 years has rapidly expanded school options: Open enrollment enables students to attend schools outside their home districts. A voucher program awards scholarships for eligible students to attend private or religious schools. The charter-school program permits students to enroll in tax-funded, privately operated schools regardless of the quality of their public school.
The impact of these programs on enrollment and the finances of the Akron schools has been dramatic. For instance, state data indicate Akron has lost more students and funds to open enrollment than any other district in the state. This year, nearly 6,000 students who otherwise would be in the city schools have taken one of the school-choice options. As students leave the district, state funding is transferred to the charter or private school or to the participating open-enrollment district.
Without question, the projection is encouraging that fewer students will opt out. More important for the district is to understand what factors are driving down the numbers and how the efforts at improving the curriculum, building leadership and teaching are helping to slow the departures.