The state Board of Education Wednesday voted to accept a hearing officer's decision that local school districts should not have to contribute to the tuition for students attending magnet preschools.
Commissioner Stefan Pryor said that for the current school year, the state will cover the costs – about $4 million – that would have been covered by local school districts.
The free magnet preschools have provided suburban parents with an incentive to enroll their children in magnet schools. In the Hartford area, the preschool magnet programs are part of the state's effort to reduce racial isolation as part of the Sheff desegregation case.
About 1,250 children are enrolled in preschool magnet programs in the state through five agencies, including the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford.
Tuition varies from program to program. In the Hartford area, the charge for students in CREC programs is $13,500. Until now, the state has paid three quarters of that cost, billing the local "sending district" for the balance of about $3,500.
It's not clear what will happen next year, though options include having the state continue to pay the entire tuition for preschool students or asking parents to contribute to the cost of the preschool programs.
With the board's vote Wednesday, the state will now cover the full cost for preschool magnet students for the current academic year. "We'll find the money somehow," said Pryor.
"The question is what will happen next year," said Allan Taylor, chairman of the state board of education.
Pryor said the state would have to analyze the situation carefully before deciding how to fund the programs in the future.
Barbara Zuras, a member of the Sheff Movement coalition, told board members that it is the state's responsibility to fund the Sheff pre-schools. "We encourage you to step up and fund these pre-school programs," she said.
Zuras said "tuition-free preschool brings suburban families into inter-district magnets. They stay on after preschool having experienced the benefits of excellent educational programs with diverse communities of students."
If families are asked to contribute to tuition, she said, "it will undermine the integration effort and thereby impede the state's progress in meetings its obligations" under Sheff.
In an August decision Ann F. Bird, the state Department of Education hearing officer, said that under Connecticut law, 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."
She did mention in her decision that state Department of Education has used the preschool magnet programs – provided at no cost to families -- as a recruitment tool to entice suburban parents to enroll children in the magnet schools.
The decision was prompted by six school districts that asked for relief from the tuition payment, arguing that state law does not require local districts to pay for preschool.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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