Free tuition?

Work here, enroll here: Officials want Newark teachers to send their kids to Newark schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Superintendent Roger León addressed employees at an all-staff meeting in August. León has proposed a policy change that would make it easier for district employees who live outside Newark to enroll their children in the city's schools.

UPDATED: Newark education officials think they have a solution to the problem of local teachers racing out the schoolhouse door each afternoon — free tuition for employees’ children.

According to policy, if not always practice, Newark Public Schools employees who live outside the city must fork over tuition if they want their children to attend public school in the district. While officials could not say how many employees currently pay tuition, Superintendent Roger León suggested that some staffers have transferred their children out of the district after being charged.

On Tuesday, the school board voted to eliminate those charges, adding Newark to a lengthy list of school districts across New Jersey that reduce or waive tuition fees for employees’ children. While each district sets its own tuition rate for non-residents, some affluent school systems charge more than $11,000 per student.

Newark officials argue that offering a free education to employees’ children will help with recruitment and keep teachers from rushing home each afternoon to pick up their children from school.

“The idea behind this was to motivate our staff not to leave at the end of the day,” León told the school board during its December meeting.

While the board approved the policy change at its meeting Tuesday evening, it did not publicly discuss the policy Tuesday or release the language of the revised policy.

In previous meetings, several board members expressed serious concerns about the plan, including whether it would saddle the district with new costs and force Newark residents to compete with non-residents for spots at popular schools.

The proposal has also touched on a larger debate in Newark about whether people who earn a living in the city — including educators — have a duty to live there. More than 80 percent of Newark workers live outside the city, according to one analysis. The rate is about the same for teachers, with only about a quarter of Newark teachers residing in the city, according to a former official citing an internal district analysis.

Proponents of the policy change say that, while it may be ideal for Newark teachers to live in the city, making it easier for non-resident educators to enroll their children in the city’s schools will only enhance their commitment to the district. But critics worry the proposal will encourage even more teachers to live outside Newark, depriving the city of their tax dollars and community involvement.

“I would like to see the employees actually live in Newark,” said board member Leah Owens at the Dec. 18 meeting. “That would help to really boost the city as a whole.”

The details of the enrollment policy change remain unclear. Could Newark students lose spots in sought-after schools to the children of employees who live outside the city?

“We will not bump a Newark resident to put in a non-Newark resident,” Tave Padilla, the board member who chairs the committee that oversees enrollment, said at the board’s business meeting this month. “It doesn’t work that way.”

But district officials said employees’ children would have to go through the normal enrollment process. That leaves open the possibility that magnet high schools, which screen and rank applicants, could admit some non-resident students ahead of residents.

Would state funding flow to Newark instead of the students’ home districts? A state education department spokesman told Chalkbeat that, if the board approves the policy change, the district would receive additional state funding to account for the new students.

But a district official said at the December board meeting that the funding question “requires some further research.” The official, Valerie Wilson, also warned that any funding boost would be delayed by a year because of the way the state calculates district budgets.

“The earliest that funding would appear in the budget would be September 2020,” Wilson said, even though the new students would begin this fall.

And how many students might enroll in the district if the proposal is approved? Officials have not said how many non-resident employees have expressed an interest in enrolling their children or how many — if any — currently pay tuition.

“We’ve asked them and we don’t know yet,” Padilla said in an interview. Until those and other questions are answered, he added, the proposal “is not going anywhere.”

A district spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions about the proposal, nor did Board Chair Josephine Garcia. The proposal was not listed on the board’s online agenda last month even though it was discussed and voted on at the December meeting.

Newark now joins other districts that have made it easier for non-resident employees to send their children to school in the communities where they work.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has identified more than 40 districts that offer free or reduced-price tuition for the children of employees, according to a list provided by the organization. The list is based on a review of district labor agreements, which is typically where districts establish tuition exemptions for employees, said Janet Bamford, the association’s communications manager.

Many of the districts on the list waive tuition fees for employees, while others charge employees anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of the normal rate. Still others set restrictions, such as excluding non-resident students who were removed from their previous schools for disciplinary reasons.

In the past, Newark let non-resident teachers enroll their children in the district for free, according to officials and an employee manual. It’s unclear when that changed, but board regulations now state that employees who live outside Newark must pay tuition.

Margarita Hernandez, principal of Wilson Avenue School, said she thinks making it easier for teachers to put their children in Newark schools — regardless of where they live — is a good idea.

“If they’re invested in Newark and they want their kids to attend school in Newark,” she said, “then they should be given the opportunity.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the school board approved the proposal at its Jan. 22 meeting.

College Access

How an effort to prepare Michigan high schoolers for college slipped through the cracks

The proposal to make it easier for students to earn college credit while still in high school seemed like the rare education policy idea with no natural enemies in the Michigan legislature.

When a bill was proposed in the Republican-controlled Senate, it passed in a unanimous vote.

Then it vanished — apparently pushed aside by more pressing concerns.

“Boy, we must have just missed it,” said Tim Kelly, a former representative who, as chairman of the house committee on education, had the power to bring the bill to a vote last year. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have been in favor.”

Advocates of so-called dual enrollment are hoping their next attempt won’t meet the same fate. They want to lift a cap on state-funded college courses that students can take while still in high school. Dual enrollment is widely considered to be one of the most powerful ways to increase the number of people who earn college degrees.

In an inaugural address to the legislature, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer promised to sharply increase the number of Michiganders with degrees to 60 percent by 2030. That number currently hovers around 43 percent, putting Michigan in the bottom third of states.

Michigan is one of five states that limit dual enrollment; its limit is the strictest of any state. Advocates say that limiting students to 10 college courses in four years is unusual and unnecessary.

The cap is not the only obstacle preventing students from earning valuable experiences — not to mention college credits — before they turn 18.

It may not even be the most significant. When advocates worry that the growth of dual enrollment in Michigan is slowing, they lay much of the blame on financial incentives that give schools little reason to help students dual enroll.

“I think we should look at [lifting the cap], but we should also look at the funding mechanism,” said Brenda Carter, a state representative who serves on the house education committee. “How many schools in Michigan are limited in what they can offer their students because of funding?”

Schools are required to pay roughly $7,800 in annual tuition for students who choose to take college courses, and some have suggested that the state should help offset those costs.

But any new funding for dual enrollment would require a political battle. Lifting the cap, less so.

That’s why supporters of lifting the cap were so bemused when, last year, a bill that had garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate never went to a vote in the House.

“That was really surprising,” said Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of students who earn college degrees. In a 2015 report, the organization called for the legislature to “eliminate restrictive rules” surrounding dual enrollment.

Johnson guessed that the 2018 dual enrollment bill slipped through the cracks in part because of its relatively low profile. It was eclipsed in the news cycle by an ongoing debate about school funding and by a political furor over social studies learning standards.

Several legislators told Chalkbeat they didn’t know that dual enrollment is capped.

Among them are Carter and Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who was elected to the senate in November and is now a vice-chair of the Senate’s education committee, said she became familiar with dual enrollment while working as a high school teacher in Macomb County.

She thought it was good for her students, but said she wanted to learn more about the cap before making up her mind. She pointed out that if students decided to take courses at a community college that were already offered at their local school, schools could find themselves paying for teachers and for students’ community college tuition.

“I can see both sides of that issue,” she said.

The Republican chairs and vice-chairs of both the Senate and House education committees did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Advocates of dual enrollment say it’s worth sorting out the challenges that could come with allowing high schoolers to take unlimited college credits.

With the cap lifted, high school students could earn a diploma from a traditional high school and simultaneously complete a technical certification or an associates degree from a community college. Those students would save money on college credits, and they would finish high school better-prepared for college than peers who’d never set foot in a college classroom.

Lifting the cap “expands access for students, especially low-income students,” Johnson said.

She warned that not all high schoolers are ready to take a heavy college course load. If the cap is lifted, she said, the state should also make sure that students meet a “readiness threshold” — perhaps a minimum standardized test score — before being allowed to dive into college coursework.

But she added that after the bill passed the Senate last year, she believed it had a chance in 2019.

“I am very hopeful,” she said.

Kelly, who reached his term limit in the house last year, said he hopes his former colleagues take a second look at the issue.

“I would hope somebody does,” he said.

Preschool math

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed — but no universal preschool this year

In the past decade, as other states have ramped up their spending on early education, budget-strapped Illinois has fallen further behind.

In his first budget proposal as governor on Wednesday, J.B. Pritzker, a philanthropist who has contributed millions to early childhood causes at home and nationally, laid out a plan to reverse that Illinois trend with a historic $100 million bump for preschool and other early learning programs.

“I have been advocating for large investments in early childhood education for decades, long before I became governor,” he said, laying out a $594 million early education spending plan that is part of an overall $77 billion package. “Investing in early childhood is the single most important education policy decision government can make.”

Later in the address, Pritzker detailed a smaller increase, but one that some advocates said was a welcome shift in policy: He described first steps toward repairing a child care assistance program that was drained of families and providers during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bruce Rauner. The new governor plans to spend $30 million more to rebuild the program. He also will increase income eligibility so an estimated 10,000 more families can participate.

“These priorities turn us in a different direction,” said Maria Whelan, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, which administers the child care assistance program in Cook County. Compared with the state’s previous approach, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.”

Pritzker’s otherwise “austere” budget address, as he described it in his speech, came 12 days after his office revealed that the state’s budget deficit was 14 percent higher than expected — some $3.2 billion.

The state’s early childhood budget funds a preschool-for-all program that serves more than 72,000 3- and 4-year-olds statewide in a mix of partial- and full-day programs. Chicago has been using its share of state dollars to help underwrite its four-year universal pre-K rollout, which has gotten off to a bumpy start in its first year.  

The state early childhood grant also supports prenatal programs and infant and toddler care for low-income families.

Pritzker pledged on the campaign trail to pave a pathway toward universal pre-K for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, and this budget falls short of the estimated $2.4 billion it would cost, at least according to a moonshot proposal made in January by the lame duck state board of education. The state’s school Superintendent Tony Smith stepped down at the end of January, and Pritzker has yet to name a successor.

But policymakers and advocates on Wednesday said the considerable $100 million increase is a step in the right direction for a state that has been spending less per student than many of its neighbors. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, Illinois spent $4,226 per young learner in 2016-2017 compared with a national average that topped $5,000. Seven states spent $7,000 or more.   

“This is a big amount in one year, but also it is what we think is needed to move programs forward, and we’re excited to see it,” said Ireta Gasner, vice president of policy at the Ounce of Prevention, an early-education advocacy group

One item Gasner said she hoped to hear, but didn’t, was increased spending on home visiting programs for families with new babies. Spending on such programs next year will remain flat under Pritzker’s proposal. Home visiting has been suggested as one antidote to the state’s troublingly high maternal mortality rates. An October report from the state’s public health department found that 72 percent of pregnancy-related deaths in Illinois were preventable.

“Overall, we still have a long way to go to serve our youngest families and youngest children,” she said.  

In addition to the $100 million, Pritzker’s office reportedly also will add $7 million to early intervention services for young learners with disabilities and set aside $107 million to help buffer the impact of his new minimum wage increase on daycare center owners and other child care providers who operate on thin margins.

On Tuesday, Pritzker signed into a law a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour.

Illinois faces a critical staffing shortage of preschool providers, and several operators have warned that they face mounting pressures from staff turnover, increased regulations, and stagnant reimbursement rates.