Staying in school

Teen mothers push for law change on child support

Students from Florence Crittenton High School listen to state Sen. Mike Johnston as Sen. Larry Crowder stands by.

Right now, if you’re a teen mom in Colorado, there’s a good chance you have to clear a big hurdle to get state financial help to pay for childcare: That is, going to court to seek child support from your son or daughter’s father.

More than a dozen high school students—teen mothers from Denver’s Florence Crittenton High School—visited the Capitol  building Tuesday to press for a law change that would eliminate that requirement for teen parents as well as domestic violence victims.

During a lunch break in a third-floor hallway, the students made their case to lawmakers passing by on the way to nearby meetings. Pausing in the middle of the hallway with briefcases or thick binders in hand, a couple legislators asked the girls to explain House Bill 1227.

In a quiet, halting voice, one student did just that.

The soft-spoken pitch to lawmakers wasn’t meant to benefit the girls lining the Capitol hallway. As Florence Crittenton students, they’re already exempt from the child support requirement because of an unusual one-time waiver granted to the school by the state a few years ago.

What the girls and their supporters wanted was to change the rules for their “sisters”—other teen parents who live in the 46 Colorado counties that have chosen to enforce the child support provision before handing out dollars from the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, or CCCAP.

Proponents say the measure, which is scheduled for its first committee hearing March 18, would remove an intimidating obstacle that’s limiting access to childcare and forcing teen moms to drop out of school.

This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining the CCCAP program.
This excerpt comes from a county information sheet for parents explaining  CCCAP.

“You’re trying to get a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old to navigate a system that’s already difficult,” said Suzanne Banning, president and CEO of Florence Crittenton Services.

But some counties are pushing back against the bill in its current form, arguing that child support requirements can help families stay intact and set the stage for long-term financial support from non-custodial parents.

Pat Ratliffe, a lobbyist for the membership organization Colorado Counties Inc., said the counties she represents want to amend the bill to provide a shorter period of exemption from child support rules. The group hasn’t decided yet whether that narrower exemption should last a year, be tied to a grade-level milestone or something else.

“We’re trying to find our way through a foggy situation and do not only what’s best for the mom but do what’s best for the child and the family unit,” she said.

It’s not about the money

Opponents of HB 1227 say the purpose of enforcing the child support requirement for teen moms is not the money. Both sides agree that young fathers, especially if they’re still in school themselves, won’t have much to give.

“We don’t expect to collect money from these kids,” said Ratliff.

But she said going through the child support process is the “most obvious and most logical way to keep a father involved.”

Resources

She said when the mother names the father in court, it triggers various county services that promote the father’s involvement.

But supporters of the bill refute that, saying the policy’s not working. They say only about 2 percent of the 10,000 children of teen parents in Colorado have open child support cases, meaning the vast majority of young mothers aren’t seeking child support and whatever family reunification benefits come with it.

“The counties act as if they are so good at working with the dad and the mom…and that is just not true,” said Banning.

The teen’s experience

Between remarks by passing lawmakers on Tuesday, ninth-grader Gemini Leroy talked about the challenges she faced getting child care assistance even without a mandate to seek child support first.

Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.
Students from Florence Crittenton High School during a lunch break at the Capitol.

“I just had a problem with CCCAP in general,” said the 15-year-old.

She said she’d re-submitted the paperwork twice, and finally obtained childcare assistance for her 14-month-old baby Starla after about seven months.

Leroy, who hopes to join the Army when she finishes high school, said with Starla’s father set to go to prison this spring, she’s not sure how she’d seek child support from him if it was required.

“It would be hard,” she said.

Even for teenage mothers who have a good relationship with their child’s father, the child support requirement can be feel like treading on thin ice.

Linda Becerra, a 10th-grader at Florence Crittenton, said she’d worry about how her daughter’s father would react, especially because he’s an undocumented immigrant.

“I think that he would take that as me being aggressive toward him,” she said. “The last thing I need is for us to have a bad relationship…I want to have good co-parenting.”

Right now, the father contributes financially to six-month-old Ebony, visits her on weekdays and cares for her on the weekend, said Becerra, who hopes to pursue a career in art or architecture.

A challenge to local control

Staff at Florence Crittenton, which enrolls students from multiple counties, began noticing several years ago that students were losing CCCAP money after failing to seek child support. School leaders subsequently negotiated a waiver from the rule with an official at the Colorado Department of Human Services.

That waiver, however, became a sore spot for some county leaders, who believed the state had interfered with local control.

“I think Florence Crittenton had a very good argument about why it makes sense,” said Erin Mewhinney, who last summer became director of the Division of Early Care and Learning in the state’s human services department.

A Florence Crittenton student listens to a legislator in a hearing room.
Florence Crittenton students listen to a legislator in a hearing room.

Still, she said, “I don’t think it’s good policy to waive a policy for one provider…It should have been looked at as a larger policy issue.”

For that reason, Mewhinney said she declined New Legacy Charter School’s request for the same kind of waiver. The Aurora school, which opened last fall, serves pregnant and parenting teens.

There is another kind of waiver—a “good cause” waiver—that counties can grant on a case-by-case basis so women don’t have to go through the child support process. But supporters of HB 16-1227 say it’s inconsistently applied and out of reach for many domestic violence victims who don’t have the right records to prove the abuse.

Even if the proposed legislation passes, Mewhinney said a state task force will continue to look at the barriers that prevent teen mothers from accessing child care assistance. The problem may not be the child support requirement.

“We’re still not absolutely sure that’s why teen parents opt out,” she said.

Cultivating supporters

For a slow day at the Capitol—many lawmakers had already left to attend caucuses in their home districts later that day—the Florence Crittenton students found a receptive audience Tuesday.

When one of the bill’s prime sponsors, Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, stopped by to introduce himself, he praised the measure.

“Personally, I think it’s overdue. I think it should have been done years ago.”

Rep. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, told the girls she planned to add her name to the sponsor list, which currently numbers 38.

When Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, learned of the bill as he walked by, he said he’d be happy to support it. Then, the former principal gave a brief pep talk about the impact of a mother’s education on her child’s future.

“Your investment in your degree is the single best thing you can give them,” he said.

 

Billions

State school board asks new Illinois governor to quintuple early childhood spending

PHOTO: Getty

The state board of education is putting Illinois’ new governor to the test with a $2.4 billion-plus request to help fund a universal preschool system for 3- and 4-year-olds — a proposal that, if granted, would quintuple the state’s current spending on early education.

Universal preschool is something that billionaire businessman and early childhood philanthropist J.B. Pritzker pledged to do on the campaign trail. But in his inauguration day speech earlier this week, Pritzker made few concrete promises on education, focusing instead on overhauling the budget and fixing the state’s tax code.

The state school board’s budget recommendation dwarfs current-year preschool spending of $493 million, which Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state legislature fully funded. Those dollars go toward a menu of publicly funded early childhood programs, including free preschool for low-income families. They also fund a slate of other programs, such as after-school care and home visiting for new babies in some high-poverty counties.

The state board’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Wolfe said the “big ask” for early education funding for the 2019-20 school year seeks to serve the estimated 350,000 3- and 4-year olds left out of current state-funded preschool programs. It is a part of a larger $19.3 billion recommendation for public schools to meet the state’s goal of providing a quality education for every child in the state.

Jonathan Doster, Illinois policy manager for the early learning advocacy Ounce of Prevention, said late Wednesday that the group appreciated the state board’s willingness “to start a conversation” about what it fully costs to fund a robust early childhood system. But, he added, “the proposal approved today focuses almost exclusively on the expansion of universal preschool, leaving out a critical component — funding for infants and toddlers.”

“In order to foster the healthy development of young children, especially those facing greater challenges, we must start well before children turn 3 or 4,” he added.

Early education is just a sliver of the state’s current $8 billion budget. The board spends the most on funding individual districts, and the 2019-20 request includes $660 million more to do so according to the state’s evidence-based funding formula. Currently, the vast majority of Illinois’ school districts are not adequately funded according to the formula.

State leaders are also asking for more money for career and technical education courses for rural districts, free lunch programs, and teacher recruitment assistance to address the state’s dire teacher shortage. The request also includes additional dollars for a charter loan fund. 

Each year the board makes a request that significantly exceeds the actual budget passed by the legislature. A final proposal will be submitted to the governor’s office in February.

In coming months, the politics of the state board, and the nature of its budget requests, could change, as Pritzker will have the chance to replace several members of the state school board whose terms are expiring.

Growing pains

Even after a court victory, few charter schools are expected to join New York City’s pre-K push

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Pre-K students play during center time at The Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, Queens. The school is one of the few charters that participates in the city's pre-K program.

When visitors come to The Renaissance Charter School in Queens, Principal Stacey Gauthier often insists they stop by the pre-K classroom.

Gauthier raves about the nurturing teacher. She marvels at the progress that students make in recognizing letters and numbers, and swears by the ease with which they transition to kindergarten.

Her program stands out for another reason: It’s in a charter school.

“This is really, truly a labor of love and a strong philosophical belief that pre-K is a wonderful thing,” Gauthier said.

Few charter schools have joined New York City’s efforts to make pre-K available to all of the city’s 4-year-olds. A recent legal victory for Success Academy, the city’s largest charter network, seemed poised to change that. In November, the state’s highest court ruled that charter schools should have more freedom to run their pre-K programs without the city dictating curriculum or other requirements — a significant ideological win for the charter sector.

But the decision is unlikely to open the floodgates for New York City charter schools looking to start pre-K programs. Advocates say the lawsuit didn’t resolve more significant barriers that hold charter schools back, including a crunch for funding and space and, this year at least, a tight turnaround for getting programs running.

“Until we settle these larger financial issues, you’ll continue to see limited participation from charter schools,” said James Merriman, chief of the New York City Charter School Center. “It’s going to be very, very hard for them.”

Success took the city to court over a 241-page contract that the city requires to receive funding for pre-K. The document regulates everything from curriculum to field trips, and Success argued that was an overreach of the city’s authority.

The disagreement struck at one of the core philosophies of charter schools: that they should be free from the bureaucracies of school districts. In a press release touting the court decision, Success said their victory meant the city education department “cannot micromanage charter school pre-K programs.”

Soon, the city is expected to release a new request for proposals for charter schools interested in starting or expanding pre-K programs. Operators will have the chance to bid for those contracts — the first test of whether Success’s legal victory will help change the landscape of pre-K providers.

Observers don’t expect a sea change, however, citing familiar issues in the charter world that are left unresolved by the court battle: per-student funding, and finding space for classrooms.

“Unfortunately, the decision a lot of schools make is it’s too onerous to try to make happen,” said Ian Rowe, the chief executive officer of Public Prep, one of the dozen or so charters that offers pre-K.

While the city is required to provide charter schools with space in public buildings or help pay their rent, that rule doesn’t apply for pre-K. When Public Prep charter decided to launch its pre-K, Rowe said the school had to carve out space in their existing buildings. Public Prep serves about 80 pre-K students at its Bronx campuses, and hopes to start serving students at its Lower East Side location next year.

As it stands now, Rowe said he relies on private dollars to supplement Public Prep’s early childhood efforts, which he called “not sustainable.”

In kindergarten, charter operators can rely on receiving about $15,000 per student — but in pre-K, the figure falls closer to $10,000, according to the New York City Charter School Center.  Meanwhile, class size and staffing requirements for pre-K means more money needs to be spent on salaries. 

“For an age when one could argue you have the greatest opportunity for influencing student behavior and attitudes, you get the least amount of money,” Rowe said.

Another factor contributing to the budget squeeze: Under state law, pre-K is not considered a grade like kindergarten is, so schools don’t receive the same type of supports for children who come from poor families, have special needs, or may be learning English as a new language, said Gauthier, the Renaissance principal.

Education department spokesman Doug Cohen said funding for pre-K is determined “based on a detailed analysis around specific needs and operational expenses of each program.”

The education department “works with all our pre-K providers to ensure they have appropriate funding,” Cohen wrote in an email.

This year timing is also a factor. Though Success fought its pre-K battle for years, the network won’t be starting a program soon, saying there simply isn’t enough of a runway to get a program up and running for 2019-2020.

“Hundreds of New York City children missed out on pre-K education at Success Academy over the past three years because of this legal battle,” the network said in a press release. “However, it’s a victory for younger children and their families.”

Families are already researching their pre-K options, and applications are due in March. Yet the city hasn’t released its request for proposals for charter schools interested in pre-K, and it’s unclear when operators would get word that their program has been approved — creating a time crunch when it comes to recruiting families and hiring teachers.

Rowe said he is still determined to expand Public Prep’s pre-K classes, and hopes to apply as soon as the opportunity is available, unlike many other operators.

“I think most charters have given up,” this year, he said.

Cohen, the education department spokesman, said the city is “currently in the process” of drafting a new contract for funding for pre-Ks in charter schools and that officials are “continuing to analyze” the impact of the court decision. As for charters already operating pre-Ks, the city will “issue more guidance in the coming weeks” about what the court decision means for them, Cohen wrote.

With charter operators facing headwinds in the the state legislature, concerns about pre-K might get pushed to a back burner. Recent midterm elections ushered a new Democratic majority into office, and with it, a bleak future for the expansion of charter schools in New York. Advocates are likely to focus their efforts pushing for an increase in the cap on how many charter schools can operate in New York — just seven charters are left.

“People are worrying about those things,” Gauthier said. “I’m not sure if people are going to be jumping on the pre-K wagon.”