Counties debate school borders Some favor opening schools to all comers


A proposed law aimed at cracking down on students who use fake addresses to enroll outside their home school districts has set off a debate about how rigidly Maryland counties should guard their borders.

Christopher T. Cross, president of the State Board of Education, said yesterday that lawmakers should consider letting students attend school wherever they want, as long as there's room. State and local funding would follow the students.

"If you want to improve the quality of education for everybody you open it up and allow the opportunity for choice," said Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education in Washington, which works on school reform nationally.

"It pains me to see the kind of resources being spent to [police enrollment] when so much needs to be done on improving education. You'd have more people staying in the public schools if they had greater choices.

"And there are a lot of good reasons why parents want their kids to go to school in different school district. Sometimes it's jobs or child care. It's not always related to trying to do something nefarious."

Cross' comments come as Baltimore County confronts a growing number of students, primarily from Baltimore City, who are sneaking into county classrooms. Escalating dissatisfaction with city schools, coupled with heavier scrutiny by the county, has taxed county resources while prompting complaints of harassment and racial bias.

Receiving close scrutiny are the roughly 4,300 "multiple family" enrollments, in which a child and a legal guardian live with another family in the county. School officials estimate that one-third to one-half of those arrangements are fraudulent.

But enforcement is complicated by the increasing number of children forced by financial hardship and divorces to live in nontraditional households.

Baltimore County lawmakers plan to introduce a statewide bill that would require students to attend school in the county in which they live with parents or legal guardians, except in special cases.

Inspired primarily by the desire for school choice -- rather than a border-skipping problem -- the Minnesota legislature in 1987 began allowing students to attend schools anywhere in the state. The original proposal met strong opposition, but now people are happy with the system and less than 1.5 percent of students cross district borders, said Barbara Shlafer, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning.

About 90 of Massachusetts' 350 school districts open their doors to students from neighboring districts.

But the idea of eliminating Maryland's school borders drew words of caution from state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. She said managing the system would be difficult and would cut into emotional and financial support districts enjoy.

"School systems to a great extent are defined by the commitment of the local jurisdiction. They are a source of pride," she said.

While the idea of eliminating borders is healthy for discussion, she said, "it breaks down the notion that schools are the center of the community. Communities need to be engaged in the schools. They are engaged because they care about what happens with their neighbors, and if it's an anonymous group of children who are not part of the community, that part would diminish."

Joseph Foster, president of the Anne Arundel County school board, doubts that allowing statewide school choice would inspire improvements in school districts that suffered a mass exodus.

"You'd have teachers and other personnel moving to other areas," he said. "You'd have schools closing. It would be a planning nightmare."

Baltimore County school board member Sanford Teplitzky said it would be unfair to demand accountability of schools with unstable populations. An influx of poorly prepared students, for example, could lower test scores at a county school, hurting the school's rating on the statewide report card.

But the proposed law, said Baltimore County school board member Robert Dashiell, won't do anything that current policies don't do. He said school districts can no more control their borders than California can control its border with Mexico, and believes a statewide "trade agreement" would force improvement in school districts that parents now flee:

"I don't believe we ought to have a system that treats students from other jurisdictions as though they are invaders or trying to steal an education, or that encourages people to engage in fraud just to be able to send their children to a school in a place where they think the opportunity is better."

Other Maryland counties are wrestling with similar problems.

Carroll County's school board has asked its delegation to propose a bill allowing school officials to charge tuition and fines in cases of fraud. Montgomery County is testing a program in six schools this year, requiring additional proof of residency from families in shared-housing arrangements.

In Howard County, stronger residency requirements have cut the number of out-of-county students. Howard schools rejected about 540 students last summer because they couldn't meet the stricter requirements, said pupil personnel worker Peter W. Finck, who estimates that fewer than 100 of the system's 37,000 students are now fraudulently enrolled.

Pub Date: 1/23/97

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