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Courant: Should Towns Be Required To Pay For Magnet Preschools?

Tuesday September 4, 2012

Should Towns Be Required To Pay For Magnet Preschools?
State Board Of Education To Take Up That Question Wednesday
by Kathleen Megan
September 4, 2012
©The Hartford Courant

Who should pick up the bill when suburban parents send their preschool children to magnet schools as part of an effort to reduce racial isolation?

As it is now, the state pays most of the bill, about $13,500 per student at preschools run through the Capitol Region Education Council, with school districts paying about a quarter of that.

A hearing officer for the state Department of Education said last month that districts cannot be required to pay that bill, a decision that the state Board of Education will decide whether to accept at a meeting Wednesday.

If local districts aren’t required to pay their share, about $3,500 per student, many say the state should pay the full amount.

But at least one legislator disagrees. In the Hartford area, about 1,000 children attend CREC magnet schools with preschool programs.

Sen. Beth Bye D-West Hartford, a member of the state legislature’s Education Committee, said she thinks parents should pay on a sliding scale magnet preschool programs.

Bye said a charge to parents in the $3,000 range would actually be a bargain compared to the cost of full-day preschool, which can run $7,000 and more.

“I think this is a fair thing to ask families, who are getting a service that they would be paying for,” Bye said. “We have not, as a state, moved to public preschool. That’s not where we are…It’s not fair to the suburbs.”

But the offer of free preschool is just what has attracted many white suburban parents to the magnets, and those programs have proven helpful as the state attempts to meet an October court-approved benchmark for reducing the racial isolation of the largely black and Hispanic Hartford school district.

In her August decision, Ann F. Bird, the state hearing officer, wrote that the state Department of Education points out that “preschool programs are an indispensable recruitment tool for interdistrict magnet schools.”

She wrote that is because parents who live in suburbs that don’t provide preschool “may be enticed to enroll their children” in the magnet preschool programs and that “the enticement may be greater if the preschool program is provided at no cost to parents.”

“Preschool programs, then, can fuel an interdistrict magnet school’s success in fostering diversity,” she wrote.

But, Bird wrote, “it is well settled that school districts are not required to provide, and students are not entitled to receive, educational services before they reach the age of five.”

For that reason she concluded that “sending districts” are not required to pay tuition for preschool magnet students under Connecticut law.

Bird’s decision was prompted by a petition for “declaratory relief” filed by six school districts. Mark J. Sommaruga, a lawyer for the petitioners, said that “simply put, the obligation for towns is to provide education starting at kindergarten. There is no obligation for districts to provide schooling prior to kindergarten.”

Sommaruga said it’s his view that if the decree in the Sheff case – the court case aimed to end the racial isolation of Hartford students – “were somehow interpreted as requiring preschool opportunities, it would be the state’s obligation to pay for it, not the towns’.”

Superintendent Alan Beitman of Region 10, one of the petitioning districts, said his concern began about three years ago when he asked previous state education commissioners why the districts were asked to cover a portion of the cost of preschool magnet schools and he was not given a “straight answer.”

The Sheff settlement was with the state of Connecticut, Beitman said, not with local districts. “The burden was being shifted to us to pay when the state had an obligation,” he said.

Beitman said his district would have a bill of about $50,000 this year for students enrolled in preschool magnets. “That’s a teacher out of our budget that we can’t afford,” Beitman said.

Beitman said he is concerned the legislature may pass a law requiring that preschool tuition be paid for by local districts.

“I want to have a public debate about this… I’m sure most taxpayers have no idea they were paying for preschool tuition,” said Beitman. “We felt we were being forced to pay something that the state didn’t want to pay…”

Whether such a bill would be proposed in the legislature is uncertain.

State Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor said the next step is for the board to consider Bird’s decision and decide whether to accept it.

“If we accept it, then that’s what the department’s position becomes,” he said.

Taylor said it’s too soon to say what the funding solution for the preschool programs will be.

“From the point of view of meeting the Sheff requirements,” Taylor said, “it’s been very helpful to have the preschool programs.”

Link: http://www.courant.com/news/education/hc-preschool-magnet-0905-20120904,0,7743541.story