Preschool funding issue pits magnets against local districts

Up against a looming court-ordered deadline to reduce the racial isolation of Hartford’s largely black and Hispanic school population, the State Board of Education must soon decide whether to take away one of the major incentives suburban white parents have to send their children to an integrated magnet school: free preschool.

“I don’t know what we’ll decide,” said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the state board. He plans to have the board vote on the matter in the next two months.

For the past few years, the State Department of Education has required districts statewide to pay tuition for their students who attend preschools and part-time programs at regional magnet schools. In the Hartford region, districts pay a percentage of the $13,000 bill for each preschool student. In the New Haven region, the cost can approach $7,600 a student.

“That’s a $50,000-a-year bill for us, and it steadily increases each year,” said Alan Beitman, superintendent for Region 10 school district, comprising Harwinton and Burlington. “That’s a teacher’s salary. Why are we responsible for paying this?” he asked. “This is not our responsibility.”

A state-appointed hearing officer last week decided that she agrees, recommending that the state board no longer require districts to pick up this bill.

“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 5,” Ann F. Bird wrote in her 25-page decision.

Her finding follows a lawsuit filed by six school districts last year to determine if they must begin paying for education starting in preschool. If the state board doesn’t approve the hearing officer’s recommendation, then a lawyer for the districts said he intends to proceed with the suit.

“There is no obligation in existing law that any district pay this tuition,” said Mark Sommaruga, the lawyer representing the school districts of Ellington, New Hartford, Newington, Barkhamsted and Regions 10 and 16. “If the board doesn’t approve this, then we would appeal in court.”

Statewide last year, 818 preschool students attended magnet schools, half attending the Hartford-area magnet schools run by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). Nearly 1,000 students attend specialized programs outside the district part-time each year, according to the state department.

Bruce Douglas, CREC executive director, said his district stands to lose $3 million a year if the state board decides the sending districts no longer have to pay preschool tuition. He does not plan to disrupt enrollment in his preschool programs for the coming school year until he is instructed by the state department to do so, he said.

“It’s quite a dilemma,” he said. “We are not in a position to tell 3- and 4-year-olds they can’t enroll.”

It is unclear how state leaders, who are fiscally responsible for CREC and other regional magnet districts, will direct them to proceed.

“We know from an educational perspective [preschool] is important, but how it gets paid for is a question for the legislature,” Taylor said.

Asked about the likelihood that the state will appropriate millions more to pick up preschool tuition, the chairman of the legislature’s education committee was not ready to make any predictions.

“Is this something that the General Assembly will consider in 2013? Absolutely. Do I know how it will play out? No, I do not,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford.

He added that he thinks the intent of the current state law takes care of this.

“The legislature made it clear that tuition is not optional, that is my recollection,” he said, adding that he was unsure if he would back a legislative fix to ensure this includes preschool.

State law, as cited in the declaratory ruling last week, requires that tuition be paid for “grade level” students, but it makes no specific mention of preschool.

This is the second time in recent months that state leaders have had to answer whether funding preschool is an obligation of government. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last December said that nowhere in the state Constitution is there a requirement to provide preschool education. Malloy was backing a motion filed by the state’s attorney general to exclude preschool from a much broader lawsuit that charges the state has failed to adequately fund education as a whole.

Malloy has routinely said he supports the state’s paying for universal access to preschool for students from low-income families who cannot afford it.

Malloy’s education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, had no comment on the ruling last week nor would he say if he intends to encourage the state board to vote one way or another.

The directives for districts to pay for these part-time and preschool programs came from the state’s previous two education commissioners. However, Pryor’s current legal department defended the decisions during a Feb. 29 hearing in Hartford.

The state board’s upcoming vote, and whether the legislature elects to provide the funding for preschool if the board approves the hearing officer’s decision, could hurt the state. To meet the Sheff v. O’Neill state Supreme Court order that Hartford schools reduce the inequities cause by racial isolation, at least 41 percent of the city’s minority students must attend integrated schools by October, or 80 percent of the Hartford students who apply to attend nontraditional public schools must have the opportunity to do so.

Last school year, 32 percent of Hartford students attended integrated schools, and 67 percent of the students were given the opportunity to leave their neighborhood school.

“In order to attract a student to a magnet school, pre-K is extremely attractive. You get them at the pre-K level, you sell them on the program, they stay. So it’s probably the best recruiting grades to bring students in the magnet schools,” testified William Magnotta, who is in charge of magnet schools for the state department.

About half the students who attend the Hartford regional magnets come from the 21 surrounding districts, and Douglas said “most” continue attending the school during their elementary years.

Martha Stone, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the long-running 1996 Sheff lawsuit, said the state’s obligation to integrate includes preschool classrooms.

The stipulation agreement the state entered into almost five years ago says the department shall participate in providing for “expanded pre-school programs that are racially integrated and include Hartford-resident minority children.”

“How the state meets and pays for that, we haven’t said,” she said, adding that the plaintiffs “absolutely support” offering free preschool as a way to entice suburban parents to send their children to integrated schools.