Fewer Ohio students are attending charter schools as enrollment in the tax-funded, privately operated schools has dropped for the sixth straight year.

This school year, 104,439 students are enrolled in 315 charter schools statewide, a drop of 2%, according to preliminary data reported to the Ohio Department of Education.

That’s down 14% since the 2013-2014 school year when attendance peaked around 121,000 pupils with 395 schools in operation.

Education department officials say the enrollment total for the 2019-2020 school year is expected to increase some as 10 new charter schools have yet to report student numbers, but still will yield an overall decrease.

Several factors seem to be contributing to the decline.

“Ohio has gotten tough on charter school accountability and the result has been many (struggling) charter schools have closed,” said Chad Aldis, vice president for policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank.

And, as more charter schools, also called community schools, have closed in recent years, fewer new ones have opened. At the same time, Ohio’s overall student population has been declining.

Fifteen charter schools closed last school year, while 10 new schools are opening this fall. In past years, there have been 30 or more new schools.

"Back in the heyday, you had a lot more schools opening up," said Stephen Dyer of Green, a former lawmaker and education policy fellow with liberal-leaning Innovation Ohio.

Most of the decline in enrollment, Dyer said, stems from e-school closures and lower attendance at other online schools. Most notably, internet giant Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow — with 12,000 students — closed in 2018 after the school was unable to substantiate its enrollment. The crackdown, he said, prompted other schools to "correct" their attendance to avoid similar problems.

"It's a combination of corrections for students not there, some big schools shutting down and fewer schools opening," Dyer said of the overall drop.

Education officials say the decline is likely the result of House Bill 2, which took effect in 2016 and included provisions designed to improve quality, strengthen sponsor accountability and increase oversight of community schools by their sponsors.

“Changes to the sponsor evaluation system, including requiring the Department of Education to revoke the authority to sponsor schools for poorly rated sponsors, has led to fewer sponsors overall and has created incentives for existing sponsors to improve or close under-performing community schools,” said Carolyn Cypret, department spokeswoman.

ECOT was closed in January 2018 by its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, after the state found it overbilled the state by $124.2 million.

Of the 15 most recent closures, nearly all were attributed to financial concerns or because the school’s sponsor cancelled its contract, education department records showed.

Ohio lawmakers in 1997 authorized the creation of charter schools. With few rules, and what many called lax oversight, new schools opened quickly — 15 the first year and topping 300 by the 2005-2006 school year. The number of schools continued to grow at a slower pace for another eight years before reaching nearly 400 in the 2013-2014 school year.

Student enrollment has closely followed the number of schools, peaking in the 2013-2014 school year at 121,000 students and declining each year since.

Some expect attendance to begin to level off as the rate of decline, down only 2% from last school year, appears to be slowing.

And, lawmakers recently took action to help charter schools keep their doors open. Provisions included in the state budget passed in July provide additional state aid and more time to meet state performance criteria.

Specifically, charter schools that meet certain performance benchmarks will receive an additional $1,750 per economically disadvantaged student and $1,000 for other students. In addition, lawmakers gave 52 charter schools at risk of closing because of failing grades another year to show improvement.