Work here, enroll here: Officials want Newark teachers to send their kids to Newark schools

UPDATED: Newark education officials think they have a solution to the problem of local teachers racing out the schoolhouse door each afternoon — free tuition for employees’ children.

According to policy, if not always practice, Newark Public Schools employees who live outside the city must fork over tuition if they want their children to attend public school in the district. While officials could not say how many employees currently pay tuition, Superintendent Roger León suggested that some staffers have transferred their children out of the district after being charged.

On Tuesday, the school board voted to eliminate those charges, adding Newark to a lengthy list of school districts across New Jersey that reduce or waive tuition fees for employees’ children. While each district sets its own tuition rate for non-residents, some affluent school systems charge more than $11,000 per student.

Newark officials argue that offering a free education to employees’ children will help with recruitment and keep teachers from rushing home each afternoon to pick up their children from school.

“The idea behind this was to motivate our staff not to leave at the end of the day,” León told the school board during its December meeting.

While the board approved the policy change at its meeting Tuesday evening, it did not publicly discuss the policy Tuesday or release the language of the revised policy.

In previous meetings, several board members expressed serious concerns about the plan, including whether it would saddle the district with new costs and force Newark residents to compete with non-residents for spots at popular schools.

The proposal has also touched on a larger debate in Newark about whether people who earn a living in the city — including educators — have a duty to live there. More than 80 percent of Newark workers live outside the city, according to one analysis. The rate is about the same for teachers, with only about a quarter of Newark teachers residing in the city, according to a former official citing an internal district analysis.

Proponents of the policy change say that, while it may be ideal for Newark teachers to live in the city, making it easier for non-resident educators to enroll their children in the city’s schools will only enhance their commitment to the district. But critics worry the proposal will encourage even more teachers to live outside Newark, depriving the city of their tax dollars and community involvement.

“I would like to see the employees actually live in Newark,” said board member Leah Owens at the Dec. 18 meeting. “That would help to really boost the city as a whole.”

The details of the enrollment policy change remain unclear. Could Newark students lose spots in sought-after schools to the children of employees who live outside the city?

“We will not bump a Newark resident to put in a non-Newark resident,” Tave Padilla, the board member who chairs the committee that oversees enrollment, said at the board’s business meeting this month. “It doesn’t work that way.”

But district officials said employees’ children would have to go through the normal enrollment process. That leaves open the possibility that magnet high schools, which screen and rank applicants, could admit some non-resident students ahead of residents.

Would state funding flow to Newark instead of the students’ home districts? A state education department spokesman told Chalkbeat that, if the board approves the policy change, the district would receive additional state funding to account for the new students.

But a district official said at the December board meeting that the funding question “requires some further research.” The official, Valerie Wilson, also warned that any funding boost would be delayed by a year because of the way the state calculates district budgets.

“The earliest that funding would appear in the budget would be September 2020,” Wilson said, even though the new students would begin this fall.

And how many students might enroll in the district if the proposal is approved? Officials have not said how many non-resident employees have expressed an interest in enrolling their children or how many — if any — currently pay tuition.

“We’ve asked them and we don’t know yet,” Padilla said in an interview. Until those and other questions are answered, he added, the proposal “is not going anywhere.”

A district spokesperson did not respond to emailed questions about the proposal, nor did Board Chair Josephine Garcia. The proposal was not listed on the board’s online agenda last month even though it was discussed and voted on at the December meeting.

Newark now joins other districts that have made it easier for non-resident employees to send their children to school in the communities where they work.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has identified more than 40 districts that offer free or reduced-price tuition for the children of employees, according to a list provided by the organization. The list is based on a review of district labor agreements, which is typically where districts establish tuition exemptions for employees, said Janet Bamford, the association’s communications manager.

Many of the districts on the list waive tuition fees for employees, while others charge employees anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of the normal rate. Still others set restrictions, such as excluding non-resident students who were removed from their previous schools for disciplinary reasons.

In the past, Newark let non-resident teachers enroll their children in the district for free, according to officials and an employee manual. It’s unclear when that changed, but board regulations now state that employees who live outside Newark must pay tuition.

Margarita Hernandez, principal of Wilson Avenue School, said she thinks making it easier for teachers to put their children in Newark schools — regardless of where they live — is a good idea.

“If they’re invested in Newark and they want their kids to attend school in Newark,” she said, “then they should be given the opportunity.”

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the school board approved the proposal at its Jan. 22 meeting.