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LaRock: free kindergarten program would keep students local

Posted by Alix Roy  February 24, 2010 10:04 AM

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Rather than attempt to change the charter school reimbursement process, Melrose School Committee member J.D. LaRock wants to make public schools more attractive to parents of young children. In today's economy, that means making them more affordable, too, he says.
 
Melrose currently charges a $2,500 fee for its full-day kindergarten program, while Mystic Valley Charter School offers a free program with a longer school day. The number of Melrose students enrolling in the charter school has increased steadily over the past several years, rising from 224 in FY2008 to 237 in FY2010 and costing the district an additional $404,000 in tuition, according to data provided by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

At a school committee meeting earlier this month, LaRock said offering free full-day kindergarten would help level the playing field with charter schools and recapture lost funds.

“I know this is a difficult budget time, but the over time we have set up a tremendous disincentive for parents of kindergarten age children to choose our schools as opposed to the charter school,” he said. “It's hurting us.”

For every student that chooses to enroll in the charter school, Melrose loses a portion of its state and federal funding and is required to pay charter school tuition for as long as they remain there. In FY2010, Melrose paid an estimated $9,190 for every student enrolled at Mystic Valley Charter School, according to the DESE.
 
In other states, offering free kindergarten is the norm, LaRock said, and in Massachusetts, many districts are beginning to follow suit. Of the 225 districts across the state offering full-day kindergarden programs, seventy percent did so for free in FY2009.

“I would argue that Melrose hasn't advanced as much as other districts in providing free full-day kindergarten,” LaRock said on Tuesday. “We should be in the mainstream on that and we're not.”

The Melrose kindergarten program brought in $560,000 in FY2010, enough to fund 2.3 percent of the total school budget. Losing that revenue in what already promises to be a tough budget year won't be easy, but it would ease the burden on parents struggling to make ends meet, LaRock said.

“We don't tax any single group of parents as we do with kindergarten parents,” he said. “There's a real fairness issue.”

Fellow school committee member Carrie Kourkoumelis expressed support for the initiative earlier in the month, adding that keeping one child in local schools could mean his or her siblings remain as well.

“With each child that starts at the charter school, siblings are automatically wrapped in,” she said. “The sooner we deal with that issue the sooner we can start reining that number back in.”

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