What Pre-K advocates are saying about the cost of programs

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Huntsville City Schools is considering charging tuition for Pre-K, where they currently don't ask parents for a penny.

Leaders said Tuesday that the proposal, which is coming up for a vote from the school board in April, would not charge for Pre-K in Title 1 schools but would implement a sliding-scale fee system for programs in non-Title 1 schools.

We asked Pre-K advocates at the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, which is a statewide, nonprofit coalition advocating for the expansion of Pre-K, about the cost of quality programs.

"A high-quality program in a private center, as high quality as the Alabama First-Class Pre-K program, costs around $7000/year. That's more like $600 a month," she stated. "Even at the top end of the sliding scale that Huntsville is proposing to charge parents, it is more affordable than a program they would look for elsewhere."

The state pays for Pre-K classrooms in schools around the state, but many districts including Huntsville still find themselves footing the bill for what grants don't cover.

"And private programs can actually get these Alabama First-Class Pre-K grants to offer Pre-K in private child care settings as well and to increase quality. The quality is the most important thing, and it is worth every penny," Muhlendorf said.

Cost Comparison

In Madison City Schools, a spokesman said the district has 11 Pre-K classrooms with a total of 198 students. They are seeking funding now for a 12th classroom.

He said there is a sliding scale payment system there, and, "Tuition currently ranges from 0 to $300 per month per child. All money stays in the program."

In Madison, they use a drawing system to randomly decide which children fill the slots for the classes.

Madison has a high demand for space in its classes. Wednesday, the school system completed its drawing for the 198 spaces which left 141 on the waiting list, the spokesman said.

Over in Madison County Schools, there are 24 Office of School Readiness Pre-K classrooms. 21 are in Title 1 schools.

The school system has a random drawing for each place there too, unless there is a low enough enrollment that every student can have a slot, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Students are screened for slots in Title 1 schools because, "federal guidelines require that a percentage of slots be reserved for the highest academic need students. This is determined by screening students and ranking them in order of need. The number of slots is determined by the amount of Title 1 funds that are being used to supplement the grants at a specific school."

In Madison County Schools, Title 1 schools also do not charge tuition. The tuition scale is the same Huntsville proposed, from $40-$300 a month in non-Title 1 schools based on a family's income.

The district was charging tuition in most non-Title 1 schools, but this year leaders said is the year all non-Title 1 schools are collecting tuition in Madison County Schools for Pre-K.

In addition, Madison County Schools also offers a 4-K program in addition to its other Pre-K classrooms. This is separate and costs $400/month per child although it is possible to have it reduced to $300/month. Leaders said the program is fully funded by tuition collected. The programs are run by employees who are part-time, but may not be certified teachers.

The Benefits of Pre-K

Muhlendorf said Huntsville City Schools was in many ways ahead of the rest of the state in Pre-K education.

"Huntsville has been a trailblazer in our state for Pre-K," she said. "Before the Alabama First-Class Pre-K program started expanding in the last several years, Huntsville had already added several Pre-K classrooms. It is to a significant cost to the school system, but when you invest in Pre-K, it has a very high return."

She said charging tuition is one-way local school systems have the ability to recoup costs and fund more classrooms. But it's a cost she believes is worth that, and more.

"Economists estimate that every dollar invested in high-quality Pre-K has a return of $7 because children do better at school, they are less likely to need costly special education services if they attended high-quality Pre-K. They are more likely to graduate from high school, and less likely to commit a crime. That's a huge cost savings to our community," she said. "That's why it's such a no-brainer of an investment."

She said Pre-K gives children a head start and helps them develop skills needed in life beyond kindergarten.

Alabama Governor Kay Ivey has asked the Legislature to approve a budget that includes $25 million to expand the Pre-K program. It would mean 193 classrooms, the largest investment in the state Pre-K program to-date she said in her State of the State address last month.

Muhlendorf said ultimately, her goal is to get the state to cover the cost of Pre-K for every family. But she is pleased Huntsville is doing what it needs to do to keep classrooms instead of cutting them.

"As an advocate for Pre-K, I'd like to see the money from the state so no family ever has to pay for it but right now it [tuition] is something school systems are using to help with costs," she said. "Huntsville City Schools is doing everything they can to not cut Pre-K and I know they want to continue to expand in the future so that is positive."

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