Campaigning for School Board is underway. There seems to be no over riding issue this year and, in fact, School Board District B and District C are having uncontested elections. In the absence of major issues the focus often shifts to lesser ones. One issue that has emerged is a charge that there are many students in our Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) who are really not residents of Alexandria. This is bad and should be stopped say those who have raised the concern. We need the space for our students and we are spending a lot of money on out of district students.
During the 10 years I served on the board this issue was addressed.The administration actually looked into it because the Board pressed it very hard and space in the schools was tight. The results, however, were not exactly as we expected or hoped.
First, it turned out that there were a number of out of district students who were in ACPS because personnel policy allowed our employees who lived in other jurisdictions to enroll their children under certain conditions. We were not being altruistic. It was a significant benefit to working parents. Housing in our city is too expensive for many school and city employees. Often they live far away and allowing them to have their children educated here made the difference of having them work for us or not.
Second it turned out there was no good way to tell who did not live here. Every student is required to provide a local address and contact information. Out of district students provided that. In almost all cases it looked legitimate.
Out of district students came from two major sources. By far the largest was from families who had strong roots in Alexandria. They moved out to Prince George or Prince William or Fairfax but grandparents, aunts and uncles were here. To enroll the child, parents would use the address of a relative who usually had the same last name. Mom or dad would drop the child off at school. The child would go to the relative’s house after school. Mom or dad would pick the child up at the relative’s house on the way home from work.
The second source was students from families who moved away during the school year or within a year or so of graduation from high school. Mobility is very great in our area and some of our schools have turnover rates during the school year of greater than 30%. These families often want their children to stay in the same school for the year and just kept them there. Since they are legitimate at the start of the year it is very difficult for school personnel to discover that they were no longer resident in the district.
The answer to this problem is not to require residency information each year. Residency information exists. The answer is a system to verify the information that is presented. When verification was analyzed it became clear that given the student turnover in the district this would be very expensive. Verifying is difficult. There is no data base of city residents that provides an easy source of reference. Verifying requires extensive field work out in the community and existing numbers of school personnel would not be adequate for those tasks.
Those cases that are discovered are done so by chance. I remember one school where the attendance clerk noticed 7 or 8 students with different last names at the same address. The address was a child care provider who did after school care. Most of these students did not live in the district. That was, however, a rare exception. The usual case is one or two related students at an address that looks legitimate.
There is no doubt that out of district students take up space in our classrooms. Usually the issue surfaces when enrollment spikes as it did in the late 1990′s and as it is doing now.
It is not clear what the true cost of these students is. Certainly it is nowhere near the $17,000 average student cost. In some cases the presence of these students may cause another teacher to be hired but the reality is that they mostly fit into the classrooms that are there.Families of special education students who cost the district more money then regular education students have considerable contact with the administration and are much more likely to live in the city.
Finally there has been some discussion of illegal immigrants being educated in our schools. That is always possible but the reality is again different. The country of origin of the largest group of English as a Second Language (ESL) students in ACPS is the United States. Under our citizenship laws, a child born in the US is a citizen of the US and is certainly entitled to schooling. Those who bash immigrants fail to make a distinction between the parents and the child. ACPS deals with children and their achievement. That is the way it should be.