Near the end of a lengthy discussion about pre-K sliding fees, some Durham school board members concluded that much had gotten lost in the messaging to the public.
“My colleagues are probably tired of hearing me say, ‘We’ve got to communicate better,’” said member Xavier Cason. “I do believe that the work has been publicly discussed for a while. But I get the feeling that that’s not the sense in the (community). And this is not the first time this has happened.”
The board approved implementation of a sliding-fee structure for pre-K programs at George Watts and Morehead Montessori Magnet Schools in mid-October. The move was meant to maintain pre-K in Durham’s Montessori schools, where teacher training, among other factors, make it more expensive than in other schools.
As board member Minnie Forte-Brown pointed out: “The state does not give us one dime for pre-K education.”
The county provided $493,071 to Durham’s pre-K programs for 2016-17. The service is provided in many elementary schools for children who need developmental preparation for kindergarten, many from lower-income families who can’t afford daycare.
Pre-K is provided free from DPS, but the upfitting required by the state for classrooms make it an expensive proposition for all schools. After the meeting, Forte-Brown said the cost has become too high to continue funding Montessori pre-K without contributions from parents.
But several parents at Thursday night’s school board meeting challenged the wisdom of the sliding-scale system, saying it could actually hurt diversity efforts amid rapid neighborhood gentrification near magnet schools.
Anna Gassman-Pines, an associate professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, has a second grader and a pre-K pupil at Morehead.
While commending the board for expressing a commitment to pre-K expansion in Durham, Gassman-Pines said she wanted to make sure that “shared equity goals” for students would be realized as well.
Other parents at the meeting echoed her.
“It is, in my opinion, going to work against our school’s diversity goals,” she said, noting that many parents of Watts and Morehead students at several recent meetings said they wanted more diversity. The sliding scale requirements, she added, could work against that goal by placing obstructive burdens on people with lower incomes.
“When something is a bureaucratic hassle, the people with fewer means, or less of an ability to meet during business hours and so forth, may be less likely to through with that hassle,” she said.
Income verification, especially for those with limited English skills, was cited as one such hassle.
Parents questioned how fees would be used, and complained that it was unclear in the current proposal. They said they wondered how penalties for non-payment could adversely affect children.
“It seems like a potentially dangerous precedent for the public schools to be excluding children from school, due to the non-payment of fees,” said Gassman-Pines, who also raised a question about the administrative costs for the sliding-fee program.
“One could easily imagine a scenario where costs actually exceed revenue collected,” she said, “in which case, the policy should be rejected.”
Another speaker at the meeting, Thomas Admay, has an African-American child attending pre-K at George Watts. He said he foresees the sliding-fee structure serving an undesired “gatekeeping function.” Parents with means, he said, will gladly reach into their pockets to send their kids to Watts and Morehead.
“But someone of more modest means – even if their fee was much smaller – that might be enough to keep them from sending their child,” he said. Given how the system at Watts is set up, he added, if kids don’t get in for pre-K, they often never get in, period.
“What I’m afraid is going to happen, is that you’re going to run this program for a couple of years, find that it completely skews the demographics, and the you’re going to be stuck with it,” he told the board.
When it was time for board members to speak on the issue, several said they were not prepared to pause the program pending further study, as some parents had suggested.
A sliding-scale presentation at Thursday’s meeting showed that families making under $30,000 would not pay anything. Forte-Brown promised outreach to the Latino community, whenever help navigating the lottery system was needed. She added that the system would not be punitive in any way to low-income families.
At-large board member Steve Unruhe said he didn’t agree that the sliding fee would hurt diversity efforts
“I think we need sliding scale, because I think we need a model that’s financially stable , that will allow us to expand the number of locations that are able to run pre-K programs” said Unruhe, adding that the money generated by the fees would be used, specifically, to support the programs at Watts and Morehead.
“It’s not going anywhere else,” he said.