Magnet schools caught in squeeze over tuition, funding
The state House of RepresentativesÂ voted unanimously Monday to haltÂ New Haven’sÂ plan to begin charging nearby communities tuition for the 2,875 suburban students attending theÂ 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.Â 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 wouldÂ allow tuition charges.
Although the billÂ mustÂ now go to the Senate, House SpeakerÂ 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,Â which also would effectively cap tuition charges and require the education commissioner to make decisions about tuition nineÂ months before the charge would be imposed. Representatives Patricia DillonÂ 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 discourageÂ 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.
When a student leaves his or her neighborhood school to attend a magnet, the local district gets to keepÂ the funding itÂ receives for that student from the state. That state funding is typically much moreÂ 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 â€“ the co-sponsors were all from surrounding communities impacted by the city’s tuition plan â€“Â it will affectÂ 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 LondonÂ and Windham are the only districts that currently charge tuition, and theyÂ would not be affected by the legislation. Magnet schools run byÂ Hartford, Bloomfield and East Hartford would remainÂ unable to charge tuitionÂ 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 supportsÂ allowingÂ 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 inÂ per-student funding from the state, New HavenÂ school officials whoÂ operate regionalÂ magnet schools say they have been forced to turnÂ to suburbanÂ districts to fill the shortfall.
The final state budget is expected to cut magnet school funding by at least $18 million, which WentzellÂ has said meansÂ 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 fromÂ other grants city school districts rely on.
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’sÂ 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 ongoingÂ lawsuit over the adequacy of state education funding have pointed out that districts that allege they are chronically underfund have not utilizedÂ a key revenue source: charging tuition for magnet schools.
Magnet schools have been the state’s primary strategy forÂ complying with aÂ 19-year-old Connecticut Supreme CourtÂ orderÂ that sprang from another education lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill, which sought to endÂ educational inequities in Hartford schools caused by the districtâ€™s largely minority school population.
Phil Tegler,Â one of the original lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the landmark Sheff caseÂ 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 toÂ adequately fund magnet schools.”
LastÂ fall attorneys representing the state began pushing to have court oversight of the Supreme Court’s Sheff orderÂ end and leave how to integrate schools up to the legislature.Â The courtÂ orderÂ in the Sheff case onlyÂ applies to Hartford, not to other districts with high concentrations of minority students.
AÂ Connecticut Mirror review in 2014,Â on the 60-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court rulingÂ 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.Â 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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