Enrollment at Utah’s charter schools — which have seen explosive growth in the past as they’ve attempted to be “education’s disruptors” — declined this year for the first time in at least a decade.

The dip is largely unexpected but follows a particularly chaotic year for charters in the state. One was forced to close with millions in debts owed to overseas investors. Another filed for bankruptcy. A third was ordered to shut down after less than two years in operation.

“That makes a difference,” said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, which oversees public and charter K-12 schools in the state.

Enrollment at Utah charters for the 2019-20 school year, measured on Oct. 1, was 77,582 students, according to data recently released by the board. The total was down slightly, at about 1% or 718 kids from last year.

The board compiles enrollment data annually each fall.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In addition to some schools closing, no new charters opened this fall — which is also a first in the state for at least a decade, Peterson added, and likely contributed to the enrollment decline. Two or three were slated to enroll students in August but pushed back their starting dates over lease, land and building issues.

Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said the price of land has gone up in Utah and has put new charters in a challenging spot.

“The price of land has made it difficult for a number of schools that were going to open this year to be able to afford it,” he said. Next year, he added, seven charters are set to open in the state, which he believes will boost student numbers back up again.

Van Tassell also pointed to the closure of the American International School of Utah, or AISU, for the dip. The Murray charter shut its doors in August in the face of mounting debts. The school owed the state and federal government nearly half a million dollars in misspent funds, according to an audit of its books.

It also still faces potentially millions of dollars in other unspecified debt, according to its former spokesman, most of which was spent overseas. It’s likely that will never be repaid.

The state has since settled a lawsuit with the school to recoup its money, but it was a messy process overall to close AISU and left some questioning whether charters are an effective use of state education funding.

AISU’s 1,300 students also had to find another school to attend. “Some of those kids ended up back in charter schools and some did not,” Van Tassell said.

Jennifer Lambert, executive director of the Utah State Charter School Board, pointed to AISU, too, saying in an email that the decline was “minimal" overall.

Still, some individual charter schools saw dips in their numbers. Weilenmann School of Discovery in Park City went from 591 students last year to 563 this year. Utah Connections Academy in Woods Cross declined from 1,141 kids to 910. And full-time students enrolled at Utah Virtual Academy, an online K-12 charter program, decreased from 2,084 to 2,026.

Meghan Merideth, the head of school at Utah Virtual Academy, said Thursday that the dip at her charter — a loss of 58 kids — was “par for the course.”

“It’s not anything concerning to our school,” she said. “It ebbs and flows every year and last year was a higher year.”

The academy, meanwhile, did see a jump in the number of part-time students signing up for online classes to supplement either their high school or home school education. Merideth said they added about 70 there this fall and expect another 50 in the spring for about 350 total.

And, generally, over the past ten years, charter enrollment in the state has doubled since it was about 37,000 in 2010.

“Folks throughout the state continue to love charter schools,” Van Tassell said. “They want to find a place that’s going to fit them. And charter schools are often that choice.”

While charters saw a dip this year, schools statewide continued to see an increase in students, which was not outside the average. The state added nearly 8,000 children in 2019 for a total of 666,858 in the K-12 public education system. That’s 1.19% growth, up from 1.16% the year before and 1.18% in 2017.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“The growth is fairly steady but not as robust as it has been before,” said Peterson with the Utah Board of Education.

Meanwhile, schools are becoming slightly more diverse. While still majority white, the statewide makeup is now 26% students of color. They accounted for 5,000 of the new 8,000 students in 2019. The largest minority group, at 18% of all school children in the state, is Latino kids.

Fewer students this year, too, are economically disadvantaged, which Peterson sees as a good sign. About one-third are considered as living in poverty versus about half nationwide. And 3,237 Utah kids fewer are in that category this year than last, for a total of roughly 216,000.

“That’s very hopeful for our students,” Peterson said.

The largest school district in the state remained Alpine, at 81,532 students, followed by Davis and Granite. The smallest was Daggett at 189 kids. The biggest high school was Blue Peak in Tooele with 3,431 students.