Some parents are protesting Metro School's decision to charge a fee for pre-kindergarten at locations that until now have been free. But Metro says for the quality of their program, public pre-K is still a good deal.
When the district's four early learning centers starting opening 2014, they didn't charge, in part because they were a trial run: Administrators weren't sure whether parents would send their children to a different location from where they'd go to kindergarten.
But now nearly 600 students are enrolled in these early learning centers, according to MNPS.
"It did take off. Families embraced it," said director of pre-K Phyllis Phillips. "At this time, we've got to start thinking about sustaining it."
System-wide, between the early learning centers and the fee-based classrooms, more than 3,000 children are currently enrolled in pre-K. In some parts of the city, hundreds are on waiting lists.
But even with Metro Schools footing the bill and some pre-K classrooms already charging, administrators say they need additional revenue to grow the program and keep up quality.
Phillips is telling distressed parents this. "I say, 'I get it. I've been there. I've got a daughter, and I was in the same boat.' And I know it is a hard decision for families to make."
So all of Metro’s pre-K programs will have a sliding-scale fee in place for the upcoming school year, except for 22 schools that have federal grant funding until 2019.
At the paid programs, the program will still be free for low-income families and students with disabilities. In most classrooms, everyone else will pay a sliding-scale fee based on income and the number of people in a family. It will start at $18 and go up to $144 per week.
Phillips says this falls below the price of other "high-end pre-K in Davidson county," although she acknowledges some programs are less expensive.
"But I think with the quality that we have and the choices that we have, I think Metro Schools is a good choice for families," she said. "I think they would be very pleased."
Phillips also points out that, unlike in previous years, parents will be able to apply to almost any of the sites, without restriction.
"Families can apply to sites that are all over the district, whether they're in a school-based site, an early learning center or our Montessori programs, or we have a community site as well," she says.
But some parents aren't happy with the changes. Mary Jo Tewes Cramb is a teacher at Metro Schools who has a 4-year-old at and was planning to apply for her younger child next year — says she loves MNPS's pre-K program but not the new pricing structure.
Cramb says the new system works for high-income families who can easily afford it, and for low-income families who don't have to pay, but people in the middle may find it unaffordable. She's been circulating a petition in protest.
"A big number like your annual income, it doesn't tell the whole story of a family's financial situation," she said. "They might have a really high rent that they're barely affording. They might have medical debt or student loan debt that's not taken account for."
Cramb worries that she may not be able to afford the fee for her younger son.
"It would be at the cost of our retirement savings for that year. We would go from being comfortable to having no cushion and being paycheck-to-paycheck," she said.
Cramb plans to ask for free pre-K for all children at a school board meeting Tuesday, where board members will be discussing an already-lean budget for the next school year. The meeting starts at 5 p.m., and the public hearing starts at 6.
Applications for next year's public pre-K are due by March 29, before the budget is finalized.