Magnet schools caught in squeeze over tuition, funding

A science classroom at a New Haven magnet middle school (File photo.)

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A science classroom at a New Haven magnet middle school (File photo.)

The state House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday to halt New Haven’s plan to begin charging nearby communities tuition for the 2,875 suburban students attending the magnet schools it operates.

Bridgeport Public Schools also had been considering charging tuition for the regional magnet schools they run.

The state spent heavily to build the magnet schools in an effort to desegregate city schools. The decision about whether city-operated magnet schools can charge tuition for out-of-district students would be left up to the state education commissioner under the bill. There is an indication, however, that the commissioner would allow tuition charges.

Although the bill must now go to the Senate, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, sent out a press release immediately after the vote headlined, “Area magnet schools won’t be allowed to charge tuition for out-of-district students.”

Four of the six state representatives whose districts include New Haven voted in support of the bill, which also would effectively cap tuition charges and require the education commissioner to make decisions about tuition nine months before the charge would be imposed. Representatives Patricia Dillon and Roland Lemar, both Democrats from New Haven, missed the vote.

“Charging tuition, it’s completely bad policy. It’s unfair and against the intent of creating these magnet schools if we are trying to encourage desegregation,” Sharkey said during an interview last Friday. “It’s going to start causing districts to discourage their students from attending these schools. It was a nice try New Haven, but to place that burden on the sending district is not OK.”

Sharkey represents Hamden, which currently sends 561 students to schools in New Haven. The proposal would have cost his community $420,000 next school year and $1.1 million by the 2018-19 school year.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey

“Nice try New Haven,” said House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey.

When a student leaves his or her neighborhood school to attend a magnet, the local district gets to keep the funding it receives for that student from the state. That state funding is typically much more than the tuition magnet schools in other parts of the state charge. The state provides districts running magnet schools with a per-student grant for each non-resident it enrolls; in New Haven it’s $7,000 per student enrolled in a magnet school.

While the bill was aimed at New Haven – the co-sponsors were all from surrounding communities impacted by the city’s tuition plan – it will affect school districts throughout the state that run regional magnet schools and aren’t already charging tuition.

Magnet schools in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury enroll thousands of students and don’t charge tuition. Danbury, New London and Windham are the only districts that currently charge tuition, and they would not be affected by the legislation. Magnet schools run by Hartford, Bloomfield and East Hartford would remain unable to charge tuition since they are under a desegregation order still being overseen by the courts.

A spokeswoman for the State Department of Education, which is headed by Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, said the agency supports allowing districts to charge tuition.

“The decision of whether to charge tuition is a local decision for the host district to make,” said Abbe Smith, the spokeswoman.

Facing deficits and cuts in per-student funding from the state, New Haven school officials who operate regional magnet schools say they have been forced to turn to suburban districts to fill the shortfall.

The final state budget is expected to cut magnet school funding by at least $18 million, which Wentzell has said means the per-student grant these schools receive next school year will be reduced. Additionally, both the governor’s and the Appropriations Committee’s budget proposals would cut millions from other grants city school districts rely on.

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell

CTMirror.org

Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell

Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden said he understands why New Haven is turning to tuition.

“They are looking for revenue. They are not trying to gouge the sending district,” he said. “This bill is fair. A flat bar on charging tuition would be too harsh.”

On Monday, as news spread that the House of Representatives was slated to squash New Haven’s plans, the superintendent announced he would not seek to charge tuition next year any longer.

“While I intend to pursue funding and tuition discussions with my suburban superintendent colleagues, following our board and committee meetings, I do not intend to pursue the tuition proposal further this year, in part because of timing concerns from other districts,” New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries wrote in a statement shortly before the vote in the house. “It is important to have ongoing discussion with our suburban colleagues about how we support and finance the suburban students enrolled in New Haven. While we think our magnet program is immensely valuable to our New Haven and suburban students, we also know that resources do not adequately track the students and their needs. Any changes in legislation should, I think, follow from those discussions.”

State Department of Education officials testifying in an ongoing lawsuit over the adequacy of state education funding have pointed out that districts that allege they are chronically underfund have not utilized a key revenue source: charging tuition for magnet schools.

Magnet schools have been the state’s primary strategy for complying with a 19-year-old Connecticut Supreme Court order that sprang from another education lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill, which sought to end educational inequities in Hartford schools caused by the district’s largely minority school population.

Phil Tegler, one of the original lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the landmark Sheff case and now a leader of the Sheff Movement, which sprang from it, said responsibility for funding magnet schools is the state’s.

“If the state is creating magnet schools, they should cover the costs so districts are not left seeking money from other districts,” he said during an interview. “The state has a constitutional obligation to desegregate schools. They have chosen to use magnet schools as the approach. Bottom line: the state has an obligation to adequately fund magnet schools.”

Last fall attorneys representing the state began pushing to have court oversight of the Supreme Court’s Sheff order end and leave how to integrate schools up to the legislature. The court order in the Sheff case only applies to Hartford, not to other districts with high concentrations of minority students.

Connecticut Mirror review in 2014, on the 60-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that segregated schools are unconstitutional, found that minority isolation in large Connecticut cities has intensified over the years.

In Bridgeport, for example, the percentage of minority students in public schools has risen progressively from 51 percent in 1968, to 84 percent in 1988, to 91 percent in 2013.

Since 2013, the state has helped pay to open new magnet schools in Bridgeport. But the education department is now warning magnet school operators that budget cuts are probably headed their way.

“We have been in contact with districts to let them know that they should move forward with enrolling students in magnet programs, but cautioned them to be cognizant that the budget process is ongoing and it appears likely that there may be a reduction. While the budget has not been finalized, we are trying to manage expectations that under the new economic reality we all have to learn to do more with less,” said Smith, the department spokeswoman.

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