School-aged children of illegal aliens will continue to be barred from getting a free education in Prince George's public schools unless they can obtain a waiver of the rules, on economic or family hardship grounds, the county school board decided last week.
In addition to free tuition, a waiver would entitle the children to health services, free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, and often-expensive special education programs.
The school board refused to change its policy and automatically waive all tuition charges, under all circumstances, for illegal aliens who live in Prince George's. The board instead told members of the county's Hispanic community, who had protested the tuition charges, to encourage illegal aliens to apply for the waivers, which board members said probably would be granted in most cases.
Hispanic leaders, who with the Prince George's Chapter of the League of Women Voters have formed an organization called Education for All Children, first protested the fees in a letter to Superintendent Edward J. Feeney last October. The fees range from $2,258 annually for elementary school to $2,407 for secondary school. No other school district in the area charges tuition to illegal alien children.
Frank Fernandez of Montgomery County's International Students Office said a child needs to show only that his parents or guardians live in the county to avoid tuition charges in Montgomery County. Illegal alien children whose parents still live in their home country can apply for a waiver, he said.
Fernandez estimated there are about 200 non-American children without visas in the Montgomery school system and said most probably would be classified as illegal aliens. In addition, he said, about 400 county students were in the United States on visitor's visas when they registered, and many of these visas probably have since expired.
"A lot of them are from Prince George's," Fernandez said. "They rent apartments in Montgomery since they don't have to pay tuition."
Two representatives of the county's Hispanic community, Norma Rivera, who helped form Education for All Children, and Silverio Coy, director of the Spanish Catholic Center in Langley Park, told school board members last week that the tuition policy is unfair because illegal aliens pay property and personal taxes to the county.
Coy said the Spanish Catholic Center knows of about 20 school-aged illegal aliens living in Prince George's but not attending school. He said the center knows of about 30 more school-aged children whose families moved from Prince George's to Montgomery to take advantage of free tuition there. Coy said after the meeting that he has no idea of the total number of illegal alien children in Prince George's, but estimated there are about 8,000 illegal aliens of all ages living in the county. He added that the number is growing.
Coy argued to the school board that it is in the county's best interest to provide free education to these children to prevent the creation of "a generation of illiterate children who will become a burden to the county."
When the school board meeting opened, board members Norman H. Saunders and Angelo I. Castelli offered a "working resolution" that would entitle all children who live in Prince George's to a free public education. Most board members expressed support for such a resolution.
But when the board's attorney, Paul Nussbaum, pointed out such a blanket resolution would create several problems for the schools--including the loss of more than $1 milion a year in tuition fees--they reconsidered.
Most of the tuition revenue comes from children whose parents live outside the county. Many are youngsters who live Prince George's foster homes and whose tuition is paid by the social services departments of other counties and the District of Columbia.
Nussbaum said he believes it is unfair to charge these children while automatically waiving fees for illegal aliens.
Board members agreed with Nussbaum, but Coy and Rivera protested. The two Hispanic leaders said that in the past when illegal alien children have tried to enroll they were told of the tuition policy but not about the waiver policy.
Furthermore, Rivera said, "Poverty and extreme hardship is not the case for all of these children."
Board member Bonnie F. Johns replied that most illegal alien children probably would qualify for waivers.
Johns asked Coy and Rivera to encourage illegal aliens to apply for waivers. "Let's try this and see what happens," she said, adding that they should return to the school board if they were unsuccessful in obtaining waivers for children.
Last November, Superintendent Feeney advised members of the Hispanic community to apply for tuition waivers, according to schools spokesman Brian J. Porter. Last Friday, Porter said, Assistant Superintendent Eward M. Felegy and administrative assistant Clark A. Estep met with officials at the International Students Office in Lanham to clarify the waiver policy.
By Tuesday, Porter said, three illegal alien children from two different families had applied.
Porter said economic need and not the fact that a child is an illegal alien will be taken into consideration when determining a waiver.