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Published in Print: February 13, 2008, as Full-Day-Kindergarten Fees Draw Critics, Legal Concerns
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Full-Day-Kindergarten Fees Draw Critics, Legal Concerns

States face challenges over how charges affect lower-income families

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Oregon lawmakers are considering legislation in a special session that started Feb. 4 that would allow school districts to continue charging fees for full-day kindergarten—in light of the state attorney general’s recent ruling that said districts don’t have authority under state law to collect the tuition.

In December, Attorney General Hardy Myers issued an advisory on the matter after a couple in the 6,600-student Corvallis school district argued that they could not afford the $290 a month required to pay for a full-day program.

The district—among several with such charges—ended up refunding fees paid by low-income parents. But many school lawyers in the state contend that since the state only funds the half-day programs required under state law, districts are justified in continuing the long-standing practice of charging fees for the remainder of the school day.

It’s an issue that has been debated across the country as states look for ways to provide money for a program that historically has been treated differently from the 1st through 12th grades.

At a time when early education has been deemed crucial for future academic success—and many parents depend on full-day kindergarten while they work—most states still pay only for half-day programs.

The situation leaves many districts feeling pressure to offer a popular program even though they don’t always have enough local money in the budget to cover the cost. That’s why they charge tuition.

“This is the only area within public education where you are allowed to charge tuition,” said Michael Griffith, a school finance expert at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. He said that while districts often cover costs for low-income parents, and families in high-income brackets don’t have a problem with the fees, parents in the middle are the ones whose children “might get squeezed out.”

According to the ECS, 43 states require that districts offer at least a half-day program. Mandates for full-day kindergarten have been concentrated mostly in the South, with Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina among the nine states with that requirement.

While all states provide at least some per-pupil funding for half- or full-day programs, not all pay as much in their school finance formulas for a kindergartner as they would a 1st grader, a 2005 ECS survey by Mr. Griffith showed.

And some states create a “disincentive” to offering full-day kindergarten, he said, by not paying any more for a full-day program than they would for half-day classes.

Legislative Debate

The bill that has been proposed in Oregon would allow districts to continue charging fees while the legislature takes the next couple of years to consider whether it will pay for full-day programs.

“It’s a bridge through what is a very difficult period for a number of school districts that have been doing this for some time,” said Chuck Bennett, the director of government relations for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. “It’s a reasonable discussion, but it catches you midstream as you’re moving down this continuum” toward full-day kindergarten.

Mr. Bennett said that many parents are less concerned about the cost and more worried about whether districts will stop offering full-day programs if the legislature decides they can no longer charge fees. Of the 78 Oregon school districts that offer full-day kindergarten, 17 charge tuition. The state has 198 districts overall.

“Large districts that are affected may well just cancel a portion of their kindergarten program,” he said. “That’s what has parents of 4- and 3-year-olds really worried.”

Satha Berres’ son Nathan, who is in 1st grade this year, attended kindergarten for free in a Portland elementary school where federal Title 1 money paid for a full-day program. But Ms. Berres was willing to pay fees and actually applied for a transfer to another school in the 46,000-student district with a tuition-based full-day program.

Aside from her need to have Nathan in school while she and her husband work, Ms. Berres added, she was “blown away” as a new public school parent by the academic expectations for kindergartners.

“Half-day kindergarten doesn’t cut it,” she said, adding that with a preschooler due to start kindergarten in the fall of 2009, she would be willing again to pay fees. Instead, she has stayed with her local school and its Title 1, full-day program. “I do want full-day kindergarten,” she said, “but I don’t want [the district] to take funds away from another area to fund it.”

The issue has come up in other states as well. In Ohio last fall, Attorney General Marc Dann was drawn into the debate after parents objected to the fees in that state.

While Ohio pays for full-day kindergarten in low-wealth districts, districts that don’t qualify for that aid have either been covering the cost themselves or charging fees to parents. A bill passed in the legislature in December allows districts that don’t receive what is known as “property-based assistance funding” to continue charging parents as long as they use a sliding-fee scale. The full fee typically is about $1,500 to $2,000 per school year.

“Early-childhood education is one of our priorities. We’ve asked the legislature for all-day-kindergarten funding,” said Karla Carruthers, a spokeswoman for the Ohio education department. She added that the department plans to conduct a survey of districts to get a better sense of which ones are charging, and how much.

In Massachusetts, where the state provides some grant money to districts as an incentive to offer full-day kindergarten, parents have been more annoyed over the range of fees charged across the state, said Ophelia Navarro, a research and policy analyst for Strategies for Children, an advocacy organization based in Boston.

The state incentive grant covers only about $15,000 per classroom, which is about 20 percent of the annual cost of running a full-day-kindergarten classroom. Districts then also charge tuition to make up the difference.

While districts must abide by a tuition cap of $4,000 a year, set by the Massachusetts education department, some of them charge just a few hundred dollars, while others charge the full $4,000.

“The issue is why if you live in one part of the state it’s this much, but over here it’s that much,” Ms. Navarro said.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick, a Democrat, has made growth of the incentive program one of his education priorities for fiscal 2009. He’s recommending $42 million for the program—up from $33.8 million in the current fiscal year.

‘State Specific’ Issue

In Indiana, the state supreme court ruled in 2006 that public schools could not assess charges on any program that wasn’t extracurricular. The ruling was interpreted to include full-day kindergarten, but Jeff Zharing, the chief of staff and the administrator for the Indiana board of education, said the court didn’t “fully define” what it meant by tuition.

Legislation eventually passed in the 2007 session that allows districts to continue collecting fees for the full-day program, a practice that could be challenged again in the future, Mr. Zharing said.

But during Indiana’s 2007 session, a substantial budget increase was also passed in the full-day-kindergarten grant program—bringing the total to $33.5 million in the current school year, up from $8.5 million. Districts can use the money to help pay for full-day classes. In the 144 districts that receive the grants, the funding provides only about $800 per student, meaning that many districts still supplement the aid with local money or charge parents.

Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said there’s “no easy answer” to the debate over kindergarten fees.

“It’s very state-specific. It’s wrapped up in what the state constitution says about public education,” he said. The kindergarten-fees issue—unlike fees for other services at schools—is difficult, he added, “because increasingly [kindergarten] is viewed as part of the core academic program.”

Vol. 27, Issue 23, Pages 20-21

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