Tougher school borders proposed Balto. Co. legislators offer bill to penalize fraudulent enrollment

February 12, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

State legislators are sparring over a proposed law that would make it illegal for students to cross local borders to attend school -- part of Baltimore County's efforts to cope with hundreds of scofflaws in its classrooms.

With a hearing scheduled today on the measure, one lawmaker is calling for financial penalties, while others worry the law might unfairly target children in nontraditional living arrangements.

Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Catonsville Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, is proposing an amendment allowing school districts to collect back tuition from parents who fake addresses to get their children into a particular school.

"If we really believe this is a problem we need some type of sanction or people will continue to ignore it," Dewberry said.

The bill comes as parents in Maryland and around the nation are increasingly trying to sneak their children into a better education, and school districts are pursuing them to recover scarce education dollars. Other states have passed tougher laws in recent years -- some imposing jail sentences and fines.

Maryland's bill would require students to attend school in the district in which they live with a guardian, except in special cases determined by a school district. The bill, which essentially codifies the policy in most districts, is sponsored by members of the Baltimore County delegation on behalf of local officials trying to stop the flow of nonresident students, mostly from the city, into already crowded schools.

Although precise numbers are unavailable, some county school officials say the problem is worsening, estimating that at least 2,000 students could be attending county schools illegally -- at a cost of about $6,000 per pupil. At a number of schools near public bus and subway stops, groups of children are spotted regularly using city-bound lines after school.

However, some lawmakers and educators say the measure will bring undue scrutiny to children living with people other than parents, or families living with other families -- also a growing trend as social problems break up traditional families. Conflicts have erupted this year after Baltimore County stepped up investigations of those claiming "multiple family" arrangements.

Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Democrat who represents parts of northwestern Baltimore County and the city, said he is ambivalent about the bill, but opposes financial penalties.

"The bill might be construed as being anti-poor and anti-African-American -- 'Keep them out of here,' " he said. "I'm sure that's not the intent -- the intent is some sort of uniformity -- but black people have been kicked around so much they feel there's a discriminatory point behind the issue."

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Democrat also representing parts of northwestern Baltimore County and the city, said the bill, scheduled for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, needs to be more precise.

"I know of some cases where the parents were unable to produce settlement sheets showing they bought property and children were kept out of school for up to three weeks while waiting for a worker to come check."

Many school districts around the nation have toughened residency requirements in recent years, some requiring all students to re-enroll as a way of catching scofflaws. A few states have passed stricter laws than Maryland is proposing.

In Illinois, a law took effect last month that characterized enrollment fraud as theft punishable by 30 days in jail, a $500 fine and tuition reimbursement. In New Jersey, where the state school board estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 students illegally cross district lines, a 1994 law classified illegal border-skipping as a misdemeanor, punishable by fines and six months in jail.

Some Maryland counties that border Baltimore and Washington have beefed up residency requirements. Howard County rejected 540 students last summer because they could not meet the higher standard of proof. Baltimore County, which added two residency officers to the existing three this year, plans to create an office to more uniformly enforce policies and collect data.

Montgomery County plans to spend $100,000 next year to check residency and expects to save $225,000 by withdrawing about 150 students who don't belong, said Larry Bowers, chief financial officer. For several years, Prince George's County has required those claiming shared housing to sign a legal affidavit verifying their stated residence.

Meanwhile, some districts, including the city and Howard and Anne Arundel counties, allow nonresident students to pay tuition if there's room; Baltimore and Carroll counties allow it only in special cases. Baltimore County threatens to charge tuition -- $3,855 to $4,400 a year depending on the grade level -- to people caught falsifying addresses, but doesn't use a legal means to collect it.

The state Department of Education supports the bill, with an amendment protecting special education students who cross borders for services.

But Christopher Cross, president of the state Board of Education -- speaking as president of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, which works on education reform nationwide -- said lawmakers should consider tearing down borders and opening school districts for statewide choice. Minnesota began such a system in 1987, and Massachusetts has a more limited program.

Tom Hendershot, vice chairman of the Prince George's County school board, likes Cross' idea, but said the choice isn't real unless the state puts money behind it for transportation.

"What about some poor woman with five kids and no automobile living in a tough section of Baltimore? How is she going to get her kids to Howard County?" he said.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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