Jerrita Baker of Toledo carries out a chair she bought during an auction at the former Imani Learning Academy. It was one of the area charter schools that closed at the end of the academic year, and furniture and supplies were auctioned off to pay off their debts.
If enrollment drops in Toledo Public Schools this year, it won’t be because of a new crop in charter schools.
After a decade of steep enrollment declines in which TPS lost more than a third of its students, the district slowed its slide last year. And while some of that population loss was simply because families left Toledo, a vibrant charter school community also pecked away at prospective TPS students.
There’s still an abundance of charter schools in Toledo. But more closed this year than opened within the district, signaling maybe not a turning point but a plateau in the school-choice movement in Toledo, where it started in Ohio.
A competitive market among charters, private schools using publicly funded vouchers, and traditional school districts that have beefed up recruitment and marketing efforts, has solidified.
“When I got into this 10 years ago, we had half the number of [charter] schools,” said Frank Stoy of the Ohio Council of Community Schools. “Now, we have intense competition.”
The OCCS is a charter-school sponsor affiliated with the University of Toledo. It sponsors dozens of Ohio charter schools, nine of which are in Toledo. It would have sponsored 11 this year, but two have closed because of enrollment declines.
Public auctions were held last week for the supplies and furniture of Knight Academy and Imani Learning Academy to help schools pay off debts, Mr. Stoy said.
Horizon Science Academy announced at the end of the school year it would close its downtown location. And short-lived Secor Gardens Academy shut its doors in February, just months after it had opened. School officials cited financial struggles and weak enrollment.
There’s only one new Toledo charter school in fiscal year 2015, according to the Ohio Department of Education. Toledo SMART, a bilingual charter school on Airport Highway, is set to open in the fall.
The school is an attempt to meet the needs of Toledo’s growing Hispanic population.
The education department also lists Reach Academy as a new school, but it’s really just a renaming of East Toledo’s Eagle Academy.
Charter schools first appeared in Ohio after a 1997 state law allowed for a pilot program in Lucas County. Ohio charter schools numbered in the dozens at the turn of the century, then ballooned to more than 300 by 2005.
But since then, charter-school growth has slowed, generally increasing by a handful a year.
The state projects about 380 charter schools to be open statewide this year.
Charter school growth worked similarly in Lucas County. There are expected to be 38 charter schools open in Lucas County — including an online school that enrolls students across the state — about the same as five years ago.
That initial growth, and the introduction of vouchers for private schools, hit TPS hard. Between 2002-03 and 2012-13, TPS lost 13,384 students, dropping from 35,742 to 22,358, and losing more than 1,000 students a year on average.
But last year, those declines slowed, and while TPS officials say they can’t predict where enrollment will be when school opens next week, they’re hoping that declines don’t just slow, but start to reverse.
“This is a year we have a good chance to buck that trend,” Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault said.
Mr. Stoy said that when he started working with charter schools in Toledo, he never saw TPS commercials on TV. Now, he sees TPS Proud signs, new school buildings in neighborhoods, and commercials promoting the district.
“I think the traditional districts have gotten more competitive,” Mr. Stoy said.
That’s been a concerted effort, Mr. Gault said.
Along with marketing, the district makes sure to show up at festivals and parades, started outreach events this summer at Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority complexes, and Superintendent Romules Durant has been a fixture at churches and community groups.
So, if nothing else, the school-choice movement has forced TPS to learn how to compete in a marketplace.