COLUMBUS — 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 Ohio’s 315 charter schools, a drop of 2%, according to preliminary data reported to the state Department of Education. That’s down 14% since the 2013-2014 school year, when attendance peaked around 121,000 pupils in 395 schools.

Education department officials say the enrollment total for the new school year is expected to rise some from the preliminary figure because 10 new charter schools have yet to report student numbers, but an overall decrease is still likely.

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 research group.

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 — more than the 10 opening this year. Past years have seen 30 or more new schools.

“Back in the heyday, you had a lot more schools opening up,” said Stephen Dyer, a former state legislator and education-policy fellow with the liberal-leaning research group Innovation Ohio.

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

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

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

“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 underperforming 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 that the online school had 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 canceled its contract, education department records show.

Ohio’s legislature in 1997 authorized the creation of charter schools. With few rules, and what many called lax oversight, schools opened quickly — 15 the first year — and totaled more than 300 by the 2005-2006 school year. The number then grew at a slower pace until it neared 400 in the 2013-2014 school year.

Student enrollment has closely followed the number of schools and has declined each year since the 2013-2014 peak. Some people expect enrollment to level off because the rate of decline appears to be slowing.

And the legislature recently took action to help charter schools keep their doors open. The state budget passed in July provides 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 for each student who is economically disadvantaged and $1,000 more for each who is not. In addition, the legislature gave 52 charter schools that were at risk of being closed because of failing grades another year to show improvement.

 

ccandisky@dispatch.com

@ccandisky