State: stop charging tuition

Parents have paid for all-day kindergarten for years, but attorney general wants it to end

The Oregon Attorney General's office has issued a statement that has a lot of the state's school administrators worried.

The AG's opinion states that school districts should not be charging parents tuition to give their children all-day kindergarten because it is offered during the regular school day.

That's a slap in the face of tradition.

The West Linn-Wilsonville School District, for example, has been charging tuition for all-day kindergarten for at least 15 years, Superintendent Roger Woehl told the school board Monday night - all with the blessing of the Oregon Department of Education.

School Board Chair Dale Hoogestraat reminded the board that the Legislature only funds half-day kindergarten, and that's why the all-day addition has been considered separate from the school district's regular program.

Since the Oregon Legislature is not funding all-day kindergarten, if the local district decided to offer all-day kindergarten tuition-free to all of its students it could cost an unbudgeted $2 million per year, according to Woehl.

'In the existing (all-day) program we have about 35 percent of our kindergartners,' Woehl said, 'and that costs (parents) about $622,000 in tuition. That extrapolates to about $2 million for all kindergartners.'

Or the district could decide to not offer all-day kindergarten to any student, which Woehl predicts would heavily impact local day care facilities.

The local district is not alone in this dilemma. More than 60 districts around the state are in a similar situation, including some of the largest districts such as Portland, Tigard, Tualatin, Corvallis and Salem.

Woehl is quick to point out that the AG's opinion is non-binding, and there are a lot of school district attorneys around the state with opinions different than the AG.

But Woehl admits that any school district's choice could cause a class-action suit in a circuit court somewhere in the state. If that would happen, a court could prevent all Oregon school districts from charging tuition for all-day kindergarten.

In the meantime, the Legislature has put the issue on its agenda for a special session that will fill the month of February.

To begin research on the topic, a legislative committee is holding a hearing in Salem next Monday, and Woehl is scheduled to testify.

He'll be telling the committee that parents are not objecting to paying for the extra instruction because they believe it is important; there are measurable benefits to the all-day instruction; it is not just offered to students from affluent families; and the program has significant costs that are not being supported by the state.

'We've been able to use some money for ELL (English Language Learners) students,' Woehl said, 'and there's some Title 1 money that has provided scholarships for low-income families. But without the tuition-based program, we wouldn't be able to take advantage of that (federal) money.'

Woehl cautioned the board that a statement should come from the district soon because the annual kindergarten registration begins Feb. 1, and parents will want to know about their choices.

Advice coming to the district from ODE, Woehl told the board, suggested that it would be prudent to keep current programs in place throughout the second semester - just to provide some semblance of stability.

'People sign up early (for kindergarten),' Woehl said, 'because they have to make plans for either all-day kindergarten or child care or other programs they may be looking at.'

Woehl told the board that he believes this is a high priority for the Legislature, and that an answer will be forthcoming in just over a month.

'My belief is that we'll have a workable solution for next year,' he said. 'Our plan right now is that we will continue to offer tuition-based all-day kindergarten for the rest of this year. We plan to go into next year offering the same, but that is contingent upon what comes out of the Legislature.'

Board member Mary Furrow asked district patrons to contact their legislators soon and explain the benefits to children of all-day kindergarten.

Hoogestraat expressed optimism that state leaders would find a solution that would be amicable to the majority of parents and school leaders.

'This is a good program, and it is something that we'd like to continue to do,' he said.