Published Online: April 30, 1997

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For years, wealthy suburban schools have been rooting out students who sneaked in from neighboring, financially strapped urban districts. To catch these suburban impostors, school district sleuths have used such tactics as examining students' telephone numbers or checking to see whether they ride city buses. Participate in our new interactive TOWN MEETING, an electronic roundtable on improving schools

But in Chicago, school officials say suburban children are slipping into the city to go to school--without paying tuition.

The revelation is noteworthy for a district long known for its troubled schools: 71 elementary schools and 38 high schools were placed on academic probation last fall because their test scores were in the basement.

Nonetheless, the 413,000-student district has begun a crackdown on nonresidents who secretly enroll their children in Chicago schools. The district's lawyers, through civil lawsuits or out-of-court settlements, are trying to recover $800,000 in tuition from 45 parents who concealed their residences outside the city.

"In a way, it is flattering," Michael McKnight, an assistant attorney for the district, acknowledged recently. "But the administration here is very concerned about investigating waste and corruption, and to be honest with you, we're getting more tips."

The campaign follows a state law enacted in January that classified tuition fraud as a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum $500 fine and 30 days in jail. The law also requires parents suspected of such fraud to request an administrative hearing within 10 days of receiving a notice from the district.

The district is already collecting back tuition through payroll deductions from 10 of its employees who illegally enrolled their children.

The annual cost of tuition, a figure based in part on the district's per-pupil spending, is $5,024 for an elementary school student and $7,069 for a high school student.

Mr. McKnight said about half the cases the district is pursuing involve students at popular magnet schools such as Whitney Young High School and the Vanderpoel Humanities Academy. Every year, more than 2,000 children apply for fewer than 60 slots at Vanderpoel, which is known for its high test scores, musical and theater performances, and students who wear uniforms.

"I didn't even know we had kids who didn't belong here," said Helen Wooten, the principal at Vanderpoel. "I stress honesty to my students, and for parents to do something like this doesn't set a very good example."

--BETH REINHARD brein@epe.org

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