New Pa. guidelines speed school enrollment

January 27, 2009 5:31:34 PM PST
New students will have an easier time enrolling promptly in Pennsylvania's public schools under new guidelines issued by the state Education Department, a legal advocacy group said Tuesday.

The guidelines published Thursday make clear that state law requires students to be enrolled within five school days after a district receives proof of residency, age and immunization records, department spokeswoman Leah Harris said. They also prohibit districts from demanding a student's Social Security number or immigration status as a condition of enrollment.

"This is a very important first step," said Maura Tierney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia. "This will encourage school districts to look at their enrollment policies carefully to make sure they're complying with state law."

The new guidelines come five months after the law center filed a complaint with the department about enrollment delays. The center said that during the 2007-08 school year alone, it was asked to intervene in 270 cases in which questionable policies and practices delayed the enrollment of new students by up to a month or longer.

In one case cited in the complaint, a mother of twins could not comply with a school district's requirement to provide photo identification because she did not have a driver's license or other ID. The children missed one month of school until the law center got involved, according to the complaint, which did not identify the district or the students.

The guidance to school districts will provide vital protection to children who move frequently due to poverty, homelessness or foster care placements, particularly as layoffs and other economic problems force more families to lose their homes, Tierney said.

"We may see these issues cropping up more often," she said.

Harris said the department was already in the process of revising the guidelines when the law center filed its complaint, but its efforts subsequently took on greater urgency. The department developed the guidelines with assistance from the law center and the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, she said.

The guidelines are suggestions, and schools are not legally required to follow them. Harris said state officials would provide assistance to school districts who need it to make sure they are implemented, but the department cannot impose any penalties.

Sean Fields, a lawyer for the school boards association, said anecdotal evidence suggests that rapidly growing school districts are more concerned about enforcing enrollment policies.

"You have that tension between not asking for more documents than you're permitted, and pursuing fraudulent (residency) claims," Field said.

School districts should now have better guidance about how to comply with state laws and regulations governing enrollment, Fields said.

"It highlights the issue for district that maybe haven't looked at the department's position on some things," he said. "It's probably clarified some things."

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