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In This District, Expulsion To Beget Tuition

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School officials in Prince George's County, Md., have taken a controversial approach to educating their most disruptive students: They have decided to charge them $1,053 in tuition.

The tuition plan, which was approved by the school board on Feb. 9, is the culmination of a three-year debate within the community over the financially strapped school district's treatment of expelled students.

Critics have accused the system of "pushing out" through suspensions and expulsions students who are most in need of help. An average of 160 Prince George's students are expelled each year for weapons- and drug-related offenses under a discipline code that is reputed to be among the strictest in the country. About half of the expelled students never return, according to school officials.

The tuition plan was one of three proposals brought before the board this month in an attempt to respond to such criticisms. All three--the work of a 10-member task force on the problem--sought to establish4some kind of alternative educational program for expelled students.

"We have severe budget limitations," said Donald F. Murphy, the Prince George's County school official who was chairman of the task force. "The board essentially said, 'How can we sit here and adopt a proposal knowing we don't have the money?"'

The yearly tuition fee set by the board would fund much of the estimated $518,000 startup cost for a new evening alternative program, which would include computer-assisted classroom instruction and counseling services. The other proposals were to expand the school system's evening programs to accommodate the expelled students or open an alternative-school program in a shopping mall.

Members of the Prince George's County chapter of the naacp--which has long claimed that black students are disproportionately represented in the number of students suspended or expelled from county schools--called the tuition plan "ridiculous."

Most of the students expelled come from families whose incomes qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches, Richard Steven Brown, president of the chapter, pointed out.

"They can't afford to pay tuition," he said.

"If the school district tried more aggressively to keep youngsters in school," he added, "they wouldn't have to worry about expending resources to educate them out of school."

The new program will be included in the system's March 1 budget proposal submitted to the county executive's office, where school officials predict it will face an uncertain future. Bonnie Jenkins, a spokesman for the district, said officials had recently learned that their proposed budget for the coming fiscal year was $38 million more than the amount budgeted for education by county officials.--dv

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