Schools Crack Down On Illegal Students

Affluent Districts Become More Vigilant About Their Borders


It's crackdown time in Morrisville, Pa.: this summer, in an effort to stop students from trickling across the state line from New Jersey, the school board will require all students in the district to re-enroll and prove their residency.

And if that doesn't do the trick, the board in the 1,050-student suburban district near Trenton has also voted to award a $500 bounty to any school security guard who identifies and turns in an out-of-town student illegally attending the local schools.

"When school lets out and you see a lot of cars with out-of-state license plates picking children up, that's a problem," said Stephen Worob, treasurer of the Morrisville board and a leading supporter of the new policy.

"Another board member and I followed some over the border, on a kind of fact-finding mission. We're convinced that there are a substantial number of out-of-district kids in our schools illegally."

A tougher line

The bounty payment may be unique to Morrisville. But as American society generally becomes more hostile to outsiders - witness the backlash against immigration - many school districts are taking a tougher line on families who illegally enroll their children in school districts where they do not pay taxes.

Usually, it is affluent suburban districts with reputations for educational excellence that guard their borders most zealously, but some urban districts, too, have discovered outsiders enrolling illegally at specialized or magnet schools.

In New York City, it was still news last year when two suburban youngsters were found to be attending Public School 41.

But on New York's Long Island, many Nassau County school districts routinely spend considerable time and effort weeding out students from Queens by requiring re-registration, hiring private detectives or making home visits. In January, in the first such case in Long Island, a couple from Far Rockaway, Queens, were charged with criminal fraud for enrolling their 12-year-old son in Lawrence Middle School.

The charges were based on a five-month investigation that grew out of a tip to a school registration phone line that the Lawrence district set up last year.

"I think what's driving this is that in the last two or three years, all kinds of school districts have come under more pressure to account for every dollar and every kid than in years past," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban school systems.

In Ohio earlier this year, a single mother who drove a bus for the Cleveland school board was sent to jail for five days for illegally sending her son to kindergarten in Euclid, a nearby suburb.

No reliable statistics

There are no good statistics on how many students nationwideenroll illegally in schools outside their districts.

But the New Jersey School Board Association estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 students in that state alone enroll illegally in suburban districts to avoid school in their poor urban areas.

According to the Education Commission of the States, 14 states have adopted legislation that requires or encourages school districts to accept children from elsewhere in the state. Even in those states, however, districts are generally allowed to set limits and rules on how many and which out-of-district students they will accept, based on the openings available.

And in most states, districts can ban out-of-district students altogether. "Overall, on the state level, I'd say the trend is toward school choice," said Kathy Christie, information coordinator of the commission. "But the wealthier school districts tend to be very concerned about out-of-district students trying to come in."

Given the mix of tighter school financing, crowded classrooms and parents' increasing sense of urgency about getting their children into good schools, education lawyers and school boards say that student residency questions seem to be rising more frequently, especially in suburban districts near struggling big-city school systems.

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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