After our fun with vaccinations, I started realized that the "Pay to K" program was even more fundamentally broken. See here in Seattle there is an issue with full day kindergarten. The state only funds half day, but the parents and educators want full day. The school district says the school can have full day, but parents must pay the difference. Fine, I'm willing to do that if that's what it takes. But get this, the schools fund them individually. That means they have to make up the difference on a site by site basis. So while I'll be ponying up a whopping $250 per month for Big Dog to go to my 6th choice school another school, our 4th choice, charges $170 per month. Both public schools. Both offering kindergarten in the same "cluster" in Seattle, but an $800 difference in price per year. Mostly this is a matter of demographics.
In Seattle, students who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program are exempt from the Pay to K program. Rightly so. We should not deny children access to education based on their economic status. But what happens at those schools with large populations of low income families is that the other families have to pay extra to cover the additional budget shortfall. The cost just gets spread across fewer families who are deemed able to pay. In our Northwest cluster, the three schools with the highest number of students eligible for F/R lunch have the highest tuition. Schools with very low percentages of F/R lunch eligible students pay less. In some cases way less. Sadly this fails to consider that many of the families that don't meet the F/R lunch requirements barely miss them. That means a family that falls just outside of the guideline now pays more to go to school than if they were able to get into one of the "richer" schools in our cluster. And you can't just move your child. The "richer" schools are the ones with the longest wait lists. In fact, many people received "mandatory placements" at the most expensive schools. That means they didn't even list them as an option when they sent in their application, the school district just assigned them because they didn't have space elsewhere. And now they get to pay more.
The thing that makes me the most angry is that as I investigated the Pay to K situation, no one past the principal level seemed to care. I see this as a very broken system that may have a devastating impact on many families at these schools. This isn't about me. I can pay the tuition. They seem to think I'm pissed about paying more for kindergarten and suggested multiple times that I could just put my child in half day kindergarten and pay nothing. Why should I have to? If my child was at the school down the street that doesn't charge tuition or charges $80 less per month they'd have access to full day kindergarten. It is the cost difference that puts additional strain on many families. So while attending half day may solve the problem for some families on an individual basis, it really only points to bigger problems. It does nothing to solve the basic inequity of the system. And since almost every kindergarten in Seattle is a full day program, any child put in as half day would simply be removed from a full time classroom at midday. I'm pretty sure the teachers use the afternoon for academic purposes, so half day participation puts children at an educational disadvantage. What about families with working parents? I guess the fact that removing a child from kindergarten early only means the family must then find extra daycare never enters the administrators' minds. But the fundamental problem remains, why should some families have access to public full day kindergarten for significantly less than others? Several times today, I was told to talk to my child's school principal because she was responsible for setting the tuition. Yes, based on the current structure she has the unenviable job of balancing the population on students unable to pay for full day Kindergarten, the broader needs of the school and the financial burdens of the families of her school. Why should she be responsible for making a decision to either raise tuition or divert funding from other critical programs due to the demographics of her school while other principals aren't faced with this same challenge?
The solution is pretty simple actually. Parents could still pay to make up the budget shortfall, but the district could average the cost of all full day kindergartens, the same way they do for all other grades, and set a flat rate for full day kindergarten participation. Students eligible for exemption based on F/R lunch requirement would still be exempt from tuition, but instead of concentrating the funds to cover that inclusion at any specific site, it would be spread across the district. It isn't rocket science. It actually makes a lot more sense, but heaven forbid a school district do anything that makes sense.
Update: In my frustration yesterday, I started sending emails to those with assistants who would not let me talk to them directly. Last night I got a reply from one of the Education Directors, cc'ing others who might have more information and insight into the Pay to K program. I'm not convinced she'll be able to do anything, but at least she replied quickly and didn't just tell me to call the principal or put my kid in half day. She's already been more helpful than the others at the Seattle Public Schools offices I spoke to by just not doing those two things. We'll see.