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Cross-District Enrollments Are Raising New Questions About Residency Rules

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The criminal prosecution of three Hartford, Conn., families for "stealing an education" by sending their children to schools in suburban Bloomfield is only the most dramatic sign of a national problem of growing proportions.

The increasing number of students attempting to attend schools in districts where they do not legally reside has prompted at least two states, including Connecticut, to reconsider their residency requirements. In addition, several school systems report that they have recently assigned employees full time to make sure students actually live where they claim.

The problem, educators say, is particularly acute in affluent suburban districts that abut central cities, some of which eject, or "disenroll," as many as 50 students6a year. Typically, the families, like those in the Hartford case, say they seek a better education for their children.

But social forces--such as divorce and the ensuing custody questions, runaway children who live independently of their families, and children who go to babysitters after school instead of to their homes--also add to the number of children whose residency status, for purposes of school attendance, is at least ambiguous.

According to Dennis P. Crowley, legislative liaison for the education department in New Jersey, parents in his state send their children across district lines for the same reason the Hartford parents gave: "to ensure that their children have access to quality education."

Enforcement of residency requirements has been spotty until recently, lawyers say, and school authorities have often disregarded questionable situations either because they did not want to uproot the children or because the district was spending no money--and may even have been receiving state revenue--for the improperly enrolled students.

According to Grace A. Belsches-Simmons, senior attorney for Education Commission of the States (ecs), many of the problems arise when divorced parents live in different school districts, raising questions about where the child is the permanent resident.

"These cases involve clarification of facts and do not usually involve attempts to deceive a district," Ms. Belsches-Simmons said.

In most states, according to lawyers familiar with child-custody laws, the custodial parent's home is deemed the child's residence for purposes of school attendance. When parents have joint custody, some states permit the child to attend school in either parent's home district.

But ambiguities arise when children live in households that do not fit a neat pattern.

In the Hamilton Township Public Schools of Mercer County, N.J., for example, district authorities have discovered that abuses are most common among the rapidly growing number of children who live with one divorced parent in the home of friends or relatives, said Robert L. Callahan, the district's assistant superintendent for instructional services.

The district, which abuts the city of Trenton, has disenrolled 39 students already this year and recently filed civil suits against two families to recoup tuition and seek penalties against parents and guardians who allegedly falsified affidavits of residency or guardianship.

In Dearborn, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, illegal enrollments are also a major concern, according to Thomas D. McLennan, the district's superintendent, although the district has not taken such strong measures against parents. Each year, Dearborn investigates about 150 students and disenrolls about 24, Mr. McLennan said.

The effort is essential, Mr. McLennan said, because the state's school-aid formula is based on enrollment. Under state law, a district that "knowingly accepts students who reside elsewhere" must reimburse their home districts $2,000 or more in formula funds, he said.

The schools in Beverly Hills, Calre considered so desirable that some parents "wanted to give us bribes to let them pay tuition," said Leon M. Lessinger, superintendent of the affluent district bordering Los Angeles. The district accepts only residents and has no provision for tuition payments by nonresidents.

Many send their children to Bevills under false addresses. The district hired a full-time investigator a few years ago to check on potential abuses and disenrolls about 40 to 50 students annually, Mr. Lessinger said. He added that the district has never taken legal action against parents and does not seek to recover money from parents whose children are ejected.

The school system in Brookline, Mass., a Boston suburb, does accept some outsiders in special programs or on a tuition-paid basis. Some 300 students come from Boston as part of a voluntary desegregation program; 100 students pay the $3,500 tuition charge; and the district allows children of teachers who live outside of Brookline to attend the local schools for the nominal charge of $100 per year.

Still, the district disenrolls up to 20 students a year for residency reasons, according to Charles L. Slater, superintendent of schools.

"It is in fairness to the 100 families who pay the full tuition, and in fairness to taxpayers, that the district vigorously enforces residency policies," Mr. Slater said.

Nonresident students who do not pay tuition are "sent back to their original schools with a demand for payment," but the district rarely collects and has never pressed charges, Mr. Slater said.

In Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, Karen Dribden, who is assigned to monitor residency claims, has heard the same story countless times.

"Parents try to get their kids in from kindergarten and give an address in the district," she said. "They say the students have moved in with the grandparents when in fact they live with family in Cleveland."

Her job--to collect records on "who lives where"--was created a few years ago because there are "so many students who try to sneak in," she said. The city law department reports that some 40 students were withdrawn from school in 1983 following 50 investigations.

State Responses

Such residency problems are rarely given as a principal justification for vouchers, but freedom-of-choice plans such as those adopted or discussed in Minnesota, Tennessee, and Colorado would address the problem by rendering district lines irrelevant, at least for some stuel15ldents, officials note.

These limited voucher plans, said Richard D. Miller, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, would allow some students to attend school in a district "regardless of where they reside."

Legislators in a few states, however, consider the nonresident-student problem sufficiently serious to warrant state action.

Late last month, in response to the prosecutions of the Hartford parents on larceny charges, the Connecticut General Assembly approved the establishment of a 12-member panel that will study possible changes in school-residency requirements.

According to Naomi Cohen, the state representative from Bloomfield who sponsored the bill, Connecticut residency statutes are unclear and confusing to parents and school administrators.

The statutes say that children residing "permanently and without pay" with relatives or nonrelatives are entitled to attend public school with the same privileges of students who live in that district, she said. But because the law does not define those terms, she said, districts have developed policies that are "not uniform" and often work against "the best interest of students."

And in New Jersey, Gov. Thomas Kean in January signed a bill designed mainly to crack down on urban students who illegally cross district lines to attend school in the suburbs and on children who cross district lines to be near the grandparents or babysitters who will care for them after school.

The law deals with so-called "affidavit students"--those students who must produce affidavits saying that they live under complete financial support of the parent or guardian in the district where they attend school, said Mr. Crowley, the state education department's legislative liaison.

He said the state has always required students to provide an affidavit of residence, but that the new law sets stiffer criteria. Moreover, for the first time, the law specifically stipulates financial penalties and calls for prosecution of offenders, according to Mr. Crowley.

"Those who break the residency law must pay tuition that is prorated from the time the board required the sworn statement from the resident," he said. "In addition, anyone who fraudulently allows a child to use residence is subject to prosecution on a misdemeanor charge as a 'disorderly persons offender."'

Mr. Crowley pointed out that the state's equalization law, established in 1974 following a major school-finance case (Robinson v. Cahill), is now being tested in the New Jersey Supreme Court. The outcome of the case, he suggested, could have some bearing on the quality of urban schools--the major reason for unauthorized interdistrict transfers.

"The law was designed to help ensure that urban students have equal access to the same quality of education programs available to suburban students," he explained. "But the new case, Abbott v. Burke, examines whether the school-funding system that was established 10 years ago continues to be disequalizing."

"The constitutional questions raised by school-finance suits exist on one plane, while the remedy selected by individual parents exists entirely on another," he added. "While education systems try to remedy problems, parents don't want to deal with the larger issues and wait. They continue to seek to get the best education for their children they can find."

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