By Catherine Candisky

Ohio could see a record number of charter schools close this year.

In the wake of a new state law designed to shut down failing schools, several charter-school sponsors are severing ties with schools they agreed to oversee. Charter schools -- privately run with public dollars -- can't operate without a sponsor.

In an 11th-hour plea last week to keep its doors open, Cleveland's OAK Leadership Institute asked the State Board of Education to intervene. The board refused, citing poor student test scores.

Out of options, OAK will be forced to close; it's among the first affected by the tougher accountability measures.

"There will be more," said Ron Adler, president of the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, which advocates for charter schools. "Sponsors are feeling pressure. This is accelerating the closure process."

Ohio Department of Education officials say they know of 19 schools that are closing this year: Eleven were dropped by their sponsors for poor performance; the eight others closed voluntarily.

Last year, 14 charter schools shut their doors. Three closed because of failing grades and six for financial reasons, according to state records. The reasons for the five other closings were unclear.

Supporters of a charter-school reform bill passed last year, House Bill 2, and of new evaluations for school sponsors say they aim to bring more accountability and transparency to a charter system that spends about $1 billion annually to educate more than 120,000 Ohio students attending 374 charter schools. For example, the new law bans conflict-of-interest business relations and requires charter operators to provide more details about how they spend taxpayers' dollars.

The law created an evaluation system that grades sponsors in part by how well students at their schools are performing. A sponsor rated "ineffective" cannot sponsor a new school, and all sponsorship authority is revoked if the sponsor is rated ineffective for three consecutive years. The lowest rating -- "poor" -- triggers an immediate loss of sponsorship authority. The law also bans schools from "sponsor-hopping" if they get dropped for poor academic performance.

"The law is having a pretty immediate impact," said Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which sponsors 11 charter schools in Ohio and supports the law.

Sponsors are taking a closer look at the academic achievement of the schools in their portfolios because low ratings will prevent them from opening new schools, Aldis said. Most charter schools operate under multiyear contracts, so Aldis expects that closures will continue for the next few years.

Richland Academy of the Arts in Mansfield dropped seven of the 10 schools it sponsored, including OAK.

"We started these schools and believed in their philosophies and focus and wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it's come to the point we can't anymore," said Marianne Cooper, Richland's executive director.

Richland had sponsored OAK since the school's inception five years ago. But given the school's consistently low grades on state report cards, students will be better served elsewhere, Cooper said.

OAK was among eight charter schools that asked the Ohio Department of Education to sponsor them after being dropped by their previous backers for poor academic performance. All were turned down.

Rep. Andrew Brenner, a Powell Republican who leads the House Education Committee and is a nonvoting member of the state board, told OAK officials last week, "Sorry. You were given an opportunity. You should be shut down."

(c)2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)