PHOENIX — Dozens of charter schools in Arizona could be facing serious financial problems, even closure, due to pandemic-related drops in enrollment, according to a watchdog group that tracks charter school finances.
Data released April 1 from the Arizona Department of Education shows more than 250 of the state's 420 charter schools have lost students this year. Overall, charter schools actually saw an increase in enrollment of about 18,000 students, but dozens of schools have seen significant enrollment declines.
According to state data, 88 schools saw an enrollment decline of 15% or more, a threshold considered a red flag by the Arizona Charter School Board. Some schools saw enrollment declines of 70 - 80%.
"The ones that have lost over 15% of their enrollment and if that continues next year, I think they could face real serious problems," said Jim Hall, a retired school principal who now heads Arizonans for Charter School Accountability.
The problem, according to Hall, is that many charters face debt. "One of the problems with charter schools as compared to public districts, is they have their mortgage payments," he said. Charter schools are privately-run, but publicly funded, often using enrollment-based funding to pay off loans on buildings and facilities.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Charter School Board denied any charter schools are in danger of closing. "Enrollment decline is considered in our Financial Performance Framework," said Serena Campas, in an email response. "We do not expect any charter schools to close due to pandemic-related enrollment declines."
Campas said 15% enrollment declines are just part of the equation. "This measure is calculated by averaging annual growth or decline based on four years of ADM. Therefore, one year with a decline in enrollment does not automatically raise a red flag for the Board."
Hall doesn't share that optimistic view. "Charter schools close all the time. They just closed two at their last meeting because of falling enrollment," he said.
Declining enrollment is an issue statewide. School districts lost more than 50 thousand students in the last year, attributed to the pandemic. Many of those losses are in kindergarten and first grade, leading some school officials to believe parents simply held children back, and are likely to return next fall.
Some school districts, however, have already made budget cuts. Gilbert Public Schools announced last month, it is laying off 152 teachers, after enrollment in the district declined 5.5%.
The full list of year-to-year enrollment data is below: