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School tuition policy built on conjecture


MY WIFE says I hate to be wrong. But I know that I'm not always right. People who have read this column know it, too. If I had my way, this single declaration of fallibility would serve as apology for errors, past, present and hence. Any future mea culpa would be understood without being said. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

Errors not admitted too often become errors not corrected. Take the Howard County school tuition waiver policy. A flaw in it should be corrected, but won't be unless the Board of Education admits its mistake.

Obvious flaw

The flaw became obvious in October when The Sun reported that a child who lives in the county with her aunt was told she had to pay tuition as a nonresident to attend Glenelg High School.

The school system's policy is that a student's home address is always where the parents live, regardless of whether the child actually lives with the parents.

A child in the custody of a Howard County resident other than his parents must pay tuition as a nonresident unless he is granted a hardship waiver.

The school system says it was forced into this twisted definition of residency. It claims the schools would otherwise be inundated with children who, by hook or crook, would find themselves a guardian in the county. But there is no evidence that would happen.

A school system attorney said in November that 676 students applied for tuition waivers last year, but schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan now says that figure included not only applications but any inquiry about tuition and every complaint about children suspected of avoiding tuition by lying about where they live.

Ms. Caplan says 51 tuition waivers were granted last year. No one knows how many more children would have enrolled in Howard schools if children who live with a guardian weren't required to pay tuition.

No evidence, factual or anecdotal, justifies the assertion that classrooms would be overwhelmed if Howard schools changed the tuition policy. Of the 40 children paying tuition to attend Howard schools this year, fewer than six live with guardians.

The policy was made more rigid in 1991 because school officials believed too many children were being placed in the guardianship of relatives so they could attend Howard County schools. But the school system has no data to back that assertion.

The policy is based on the premise that it is too easy to become a guardian in Howard County. But Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney, who hears most guardianship cases in the county, says blanket statements don't apply.

Some applications for guardianship, especially at the beginning of the school year, are clearly made to get a child in Howard County schools, he says.

Most cases, however, concern the genuine break-up of a family in which a parent is incarcerated, on drugs or uninterested in being a parent, so another relative has to step in to become the child's guardian.

The school system policy waives tuition whenever a child can document that type of hardship. But that child is still considered a nonresident.

That doesn't compute. Why can't the court's decision that a child should live with a guardian who lives in Howard County be all that's necessary to get that child into county schools without paying tuition?

Judge Sweeney acknowledges that gaining guardianship is a simple process if none of the parties involved objects. But he says the best interest of the child guides the court, not the school preference.

If the school system had evidence that it had significantly reduced the number of transfer students entering Howard schools by making its residency policy more stringent, perhaps the change would be justified. But it has no such evidence.

No evidence

There is no evidence that the school system could not successfully investigate cases where it suspects a child is using a guardian's address but lives in another jurisdiction with his parents.

The school system can offer nothing beyond conjecture for a policy that demands tuition payments from transfer students who live with guardians but not those fortunate enough to live with their parents.

Judge Sweeney says the court typically handles two or three guardianship cases a week. Many involve the hardships that permit a tuition waiver.

Why should these children have to provide additional proof to the school system that they are better off in a new home?

The school system doesn't know whether it would have to educate a handful of additional students or hundreds if its policy were changed. But that's not the issue. Every child who lives in the county is supposed to be guaranteed a public education.

It's the school board's job to tell county government how many children its budget must educate. It's not the board's job to limit that number arbitrarily.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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