Barring The Doors

Our View: Baltimore County Schools Risk Taking Residency Crackdown Too Far

August 04, 2009

Baltimore County school officials last week issued a stern warning to parents and guardians of sixth- and ninth-grade students that they have until this Friday to prove county residency or be denied enrollment for the 2009-2010 school year. It is a matter the system takes seriously - but perhaps too seriously given the nature of the problem.

That the county has a legitimate fiduciary interest in ensuring that its public school students meet residency requirements is beyond question. For as long as anyone can remember, Baltimore County Public Schools have sought to confirm the residency status of new students and transfers. The system even employs investigators to check out student residency when questions about an individual arise.

Clearly, no public school system should be required to educate students beyond its borders. That's a burden that could lead to over-crowding, contribute to budget shortfalls and harm the quality of education system-wide.

But to bar students from entering middle or high school this fall because their guardians have failed to meet the documentation requirements could have a more immediate negative effect. Last year (the first year of the expanded residency check) about 4 percent of incoming sixth graders and 10 percent of ninth graders failed to prove residency by the first day of school. Many were kept out of class until their paperwork was in hand.

In most cases, this was not a matter of city residents trying to sneak their offspring into a county school (the scenario that seems to cause the most distress for the county's elected officials). More often it was simply a matter of someone not providing the requested paperwork, including photo identification, lease or deed, and three pieces of mail.

How many people are deliberately trying to circumvent the residency requirement? No one knows for sure, but last year fewer than 500 students withdrew for a variety of reasons (including enrollment in private school). That was down from 570 before the more stringent residency policy was established.

In a school system of 103,000, that's a fairly small number, both then and now. Yet it helps keep 38 county employees busy - that's the number of pupil personnel workers employed by the system to monitor student residency and related issues.

What their investigations often unearth are students of broken families with perhaps one parent living in the city and the other in the county. As long as the child's legal guardian lives in the county, the student still meets the residency requirement. The county also gives a number of exceptions - including to the children of school-system employees who live elsewhere.

Even the most xenophobic politicians should recognize the danger in putting forth too much (and too costly) enforcement effort for too little return. Even if the worst is true and dozens of students are circumventing the law, the outcome may still be for the best if it means more kids are better educated.

If city schools continue to improve, the matter may be moot anyway. But in the meantime, the county should show some flexibility (and yes, some compassion) and not bar students from classes until their alleged ineligibility is proven.

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