Feel-good response to border crossings Regional problem: Without tuition amendment, state legislation is useless.

February 20, 1997

WHILE THE DESIRE to seek a better education is laudable, those who break the rules to fulfill that desire cannot be excused.

In Maryland, barring unusual circumstances or payment of tuition where that is allowed, children must attend school in the district to which they are assigned. School systems have a responsibility to resident taxpayers and their children to enforce policies against border-crossing, a problem in the Baltimore and Washington areas that some school officials say is worsening.

Indeed, some educators and elected officials say the existing policies are insufficient. State lawmakers from Baltimore County are proposing statewide legislation that would make it illegal to sneak into another school system.

The trouble with the bill is that it accomplishes little that school policies, which carry the force of law, do not already.

Yes, a statewide law might eliminate confusion and intimidate some potential rule-breakers. Still, without sanctions, the pending proposal amounts to little more than feel-good legislation.

Race and class should be beside the point here. Border-crossing is as much a problem between counties as between the city and counties; besides, breaking rules or laws is never an acceptable way to improve one's lot.

The relevant question is how local jurisdictions can fulfill their obligation to taxpaying residents -- who have every right to resent the dilution of the quality of their children's schooling caused by border crossers -- without treating those who want a better education for their kids with too heavy a hand.

Fines and jail sentences, which have been implemented in other areas, criminalize people needlessly. A better solution is for school systems to give outsiders the chance to pay tuition. Some already do. Others, like Baltimore and Carroll counties, allow out-of-county students only in special cases. Scofflaws get billed for prior educational services rendered. Repayment schedules can be tailored to a family's circumstances.

Del. Thomas Dewberry, D-Catonsville, has written an amendment allowing collection of back tuition. With it, this bill might deter border crossing fairly. Otherwise, it is fairly useless.

Pub Date: 2/20/97

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