Adoptive father fights with schools

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BETHESDA - James Chan brought a 10-year-old boy from Oregon into his home last month, planning to adopt him. But he soon found out that he couldn't send Jesse to public school in his new hometown without paying $8,552 in tuition Chan says he can't afford.

Chan, 32, has been wrangling with Montgomery County school officials, trying to get Jesse into class. He never imagined that the county where he lives and pays taxes would charge for the boy to attend public school while waiting for the adoption to become final.

"These people, the school board, they don't care," Chan said while sitting on a couch in his modest two-bedroom apartment. "This is a lot of financial stress."

The struggle caused Jesse, a boy with violet-blue eyes and a penchant for Pokemon, to miss the first week of class, which began last week. Rather than keep Jesse at home any longer, Chan sent him to private school, which cost him $5,400, but was still $3,100 cheaper than public school.

The problem is that no law stipulates who - if anyone - pays for school when a child is living out of his home state and waiting to be adopted.

That leaves Chan, who is single and a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, stuck in a loophole he doesn't know how to climb through.

In Jesse's case, Montgomery County officials maintain that either Chan or the state of Oregon should pay for the schooling because the boy is still a ward of Oregon.

"Normally it's the sending state that pays," said Judith Bresler, general counsel of the Montgomery County School System. "We generally get pay vouchers from the sending state and that's that."

Bresler referred to the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children - an agreement intended to ease the adoption process across state lines - saying that the sending agency is responsible for "support and maintenance of the child during period of placement."

But if the situation were reversed, and Jesse went to Oregon from Maryland, he would go to school for free, officials there said.

"If somebody shows up and lives in our district, we let them in," said Larry Hunt, principal of Pleasant Hill Elementary in Pleasant Hill, Ore., where Jesse attended kindergarten through third grade.

In Maryland, the problem stems from a state law that requires prospective parents and children to live together for six months before the adoption becomes final.

During that waiting period, the rules governing who pays for education are vague - and not interpreted consistently within the state.

Just last year, for instance, Jesse was enrolled for free in a public school in Queen Anne's County, pending an adoption by another family that later fell through.

All 24 school districts in Maryland have autonomy to interpret the residency status of their students, said Neil Greenberger, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.

"There apparently is not one absolute interpretation of the boy's status," Greenberger said. "The only thing we know for certain is it's not addressed in the state code."

On that point, the state of Oregon agrees: "The laws are silent when it comes to education," said Patricia A. Feeney, spokeswoman for Oregon's Office of Services to Children and Families.

Raymond Bryant, Montgomery County's associate superintendent for student and community services, said his jurisdiction doesn't educate non-residents for free, even if they're 10 years old and waiting to be adopted.

"We are trying to ensure we are good stewards of public trust," he said.

The county, which has the highest SAT scores in the state, is the wealthiest district in Maryland and places a premium on education. Because it is a sought-after school district, its residency requirements are strict, officials said.

About 135,000 students are enrolled in Montgomery schools; 32 of them are foster children or pre-adoptive children like Jesse, who live in the county, but are considered residents of states such as New York, Delaware and Virginia.

In each of those cases, the sending state is paying tuition, said Anita Mostow, Montgomery County's coordinator for residency compliance. She said she has never heard of a state that wouldn't pay.

"To my knowledge, we've not dealt with this before," said Mostow, who has been working with residency issues for 20 years in Montgomery County.

Fights over residency sometimes crop up in other counties like Baltimore and Howard, which also have a reputation for unusually strict residency rules that have barred some children from class.

On Sept. 8, Oregon's Department of Justice sent a letter to lawyers at Montgomery County schools asking for a tuition fee waiver for Jesse. As of yesterday, the school system had not responded.

Liz Oppenheim, program director for the Washington-based American Public Human Services Association, a nonprofit group that represents health and human service agencies, said James Chan should not have to pay for his son's education.

"This child should be able to be schooled by public school and the father should not be paying," said Oppenheim, whose job it is to help improve practice and policy for adoptions. "Either Montgomery County or Oregon should pay."

She said that interstate adoptions are becoming more common than ever because of the reach of the Internet and that that is causing problems no one foresaw.

Chan took three weeks off from his job at NIH to be with Jesse when he first moved in.

He counted on going back to work when school started, but had to stay home an extra week to try to work his way out of the unexpected mess.

During that time, Chan made frantic calls to schools and social workers, trying to get Jesse enrolled in class.

"I'm being pressured from all sides," Chan said Tuesday, the day before Jesse began attending private school. "Jesse and I are trapped in here."

If the prospective father and son can make it through the next six months, the adoption should be final. Then Chan will transfer Jesse to public school.

The switch is another disruption Jesse doesn't need, but by Chan's estimate, it's unavoidable.

"It's the only way to go," Chan said. "When he's legalized, the public school won't be able to reject him."

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