The Prince George's Board of Education angrily declared last week it will oppose a state bill that would force the school system to stop charging tuition to children of illegal immigrants.
The county now requires families to pay $2,258 to $2,407 a year in tuition fees, or apply for a waiver on economic or family hardship grounds. School officials say these waivers almost always are granted.
The bill, introduced by Del. Judith C. Toth (D-Bethesda), would force school districts to provide free education to children regardless of their immigration status. It is now before the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, where Chairman Helen L. Koss (D-Wheaton) said members appear to have a "general sympathy" for the bill's purpose, but not for the way it was written. Although Koss would not predict the bill's fate, she said the fact that it was introduced may encourage the Prince George's school board to reconsider its policy.
Prince George's is the only school district in Maryland and, according to Toth, one of only seven in the country that charge tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who live in their jurisdiction. Illegal alien students living in Virginia school districts and in the District of Columbia attend school free simply by demonstrating residence.
The Prince George's system considers illegal immigrants nonresidents even if they prove they live in the county. School board members and school officials argue, however, that tuition waivers are so easy to obtain that the policy does not prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining free education.
Last year, about 500 of the 700 applications for waivers were successful, according to board attorney Paul Nussbaum.
Board members consider the tuition policy important largely because it provides an annual income of about $1 million. Most of this money is paid by social services departments in the District of Columbia and neighboring counties who place children in Prince George's foster homes, rather than by illegal immigrants.
Last week, board members expressed anger at Toth's proposal, saying they have been misunderstood and their position misrepresented.
Although speakers at board meetings normally are given only five minutes to speak, the board listened for more than two hours to Silverio Coy, the director of the Spanish Catholic Center in Langley Park, and Norma Rivera when they came to an earlier meeting to plead the illegal immigrants' case.
Board members assured Coy and Rivera they would make sure school principals understand the waiver policy, guarantee confidentiality of records and, if necessary, provide transportation for children to the International Students Office in Lanham, where they can apply for waivers. Board member Bonnie F. Johns asked Coy and Rivera to return to the board if they encountered problems with the waiver system.
The day after that meeting, Assistant Superintendent Edward M. Felegy and Superintendent Edward J. Feeney's administrative assistant, Clark A. Estep, met with officials at the International Students Office to make sure they understood the waiver policy. Waiver forms were delivered to individual schools to speed up the process.
Several board members expressed anger that Rivera and Coy, who never returned to the school board to say they had encountered difficulties, had been actively supporting Toth's bill and criticizing the school board, saying it was not admitting illegal immigrant children.
"I think a fraud is being perpetrated on the people of Prince George's County," said Angelo I. Castelli, vice chairman of the board. Member Bonnie F. Johns said the board was "almost 100 percent guartanteeing" that the children could get a free education in county schools.
Board Chairman Doris A. Eugene said she was angry that Toth, or a Toth aide, had failed to speak to her, any other board member or any school system administrator before or since introducing the bill. Toth said an aide had spoken to school officials, but only to collect data.
"To say we're not letting (illegal alien students) in, that's wrong," Eugene said. "That's not true. We are letting them in. We're just saying you have to fill out a form. You have to go through a process. I don't see anything terribly wrong with that."
Toth said she objects to "the philosophy that says these children are not to be treated like all other children." She said it is unfair to "visit upon children the sins of their parents."
Coy complained that the waiver process creates unnecessary difficulties for families of illegal immigrants, many of whom cannot speak English. He cited his own difficulty in finding out that a waiver policy even existed.
Sister Amaya Duralde, who represented Coy and the Spanish Catholic Center at a meeting of Hispanics with Superintendent Feeney and board attorney Nussbaum in October, said the school leaders did not mention a waiver policy at the session.
In a subsequent letter to those who attended, Feeney explained the tuition policy but made no mention of the waivers. Feeney said the schools have "no obligation to provide a free public education to children of undocumented aliens who may reside in the county," but added that this should not be "construed as suggesting that the doors of the Prince George's public schools will be shut to those children." He said they can attend school "by paying the tuition required from all nondomiciliaries."