Proposed legislation could change Dream Act rules -- Gazette.Net


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Democratic legislators, school officials and community members in Maryland are searching for a solution for a group of ambitious Montgomery County high school students who are unexpected victims of the Maryland Dream Act.

Under the law, which took effect Jan. 1, nearly 80 Montgomery County high school students who have been getting a jump start on their higher education by taking courses at Montgomery College now will need to prove their U.S. citizenship to pay the in-county tuition rate.

The Maryland Dream Act allows students who are not citizens to pay in-state tuition rates for Maryland universities. They must have graduated from Maryland public high schools, and their families must have filed income tax returns in Maryland for three years.

Some say not including current high school students in the law was an oversight, and the law should be changed accordingly, but opponents of the law say adding these students would change the original intent of the law and expand its reach even further.

Immigrant-rights group CASA of Maryland, supporters of the law, believes it was an unintended consequence, and the group is committed to finding a solution, said Kim Propeack, the group’s political director.

“We are hoping that we can fix the problem that impacts a small but meaningful population of the county,” Propeack said.

The Montgomery high school students were not previously required to provide full documentation under Montgomery College’s tuition policy to receive in-county tuition rate, said Elizabeth Homan, college spokeswoman.

The law, passed by the General Assembly in 2011 and upheld by voters in a November referendum, now sets the tuition rate for undocumented students who qualify, she said.

Montgomery College has sent letters to the students it knows will need to update their documentation under the law. All community colleges statewide are grappling with how to deal with the issue, said Jody Kallis, legislative liaison of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. The colleges might or might not have been requiring full documentation to provide their high school students with the in-county rate, Kallis said.

If the Montgomery College students do not provide updated information about their citizenship and visa status, their tuition will increase from the in-county rate of $112 per credit hour to the out-of-state rate of $314 per credit hour, not including fees.

Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Dist. 14) of Burtonsville said she is not sure if dually enrolled students were discussed during the drafting of the law in 2011.

Regardless, she said Tuesday, she will introduce legislation during this year’s General Assembly session to include the “dual enrollees” in the law.

Kaiser said she realizes asking for a change to the law now might not be a popular decision.

Passage took five years

It took supporters five years to bring legislators and the public to enact the law, Propeack said.

“I definitely have a concern there,” Kaiser said. “But I think the citizens of Maryland could not have given a much stronger yes on this proposal.”

In November, 58.9 percent of voters supported the law.

Kaiser said she thinks many of her legislative opponents might be more willing to support the law now that they have seen their jurisdictions’ support.

In 2011, 19 of the 46 votes in the Maryland Senate and 65 of the 139 votes in the House of Delegates were against the law.

Opponents have argued the Dream Act will cost the state millions, and spaces in community colleges would be taken from legal Maryland residents to accommodate the undocumented students.

Advocates for the law sold the bill on the basis that the benefit of subsidized tuition would apply only to those who met requirements, such as the graduation requirement, Del. Steven Schuh (R-Dist. 31) of Gibson Island said.

“Now what we are inherently seeing is an expansion of the law to the benefit of an even larger pool of illegal immigrants,” Schuh said.

Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Dist. 7) of Middle River said he would not be changing his vote.

“It would broaden something that is unpopular to start,” McDonough said.

Not all supporters of the law believe legislation is the best solution.

Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase said Monday she was hoping Kaiser would not introduce legislation.

“We had to do a lot of work this year and last year when we were introducing it (to get it passed),” Gutierrez said. “Tinkering with the Dream Act is unnecessary at this time. ... I imagine that the tea party Republicans would still want to block it.”

Gutierrez said this is a bigger issue. She thinks the college should not be charging any high-school students for classes in their dual-enrollment programs. She said other counties do not charge its students.

She said Montgomery College could give students a waiver for their tuition.

Kallis said community colleges have other options if the law is not changed.

The colleges could decide to use institutional aid to pay the difference in tuition rates for the high-school students or garner private donations, Kallis said.

Kallis said she is not sure if legislation is the best route.

“The law was so controversial, anyway, it would be hard to go back at it again,” she said.

Although the issue affects a small student population, it is important to address, Montgomery County Board of education member Rebecca Smondrowski said.

“My concern is we have hard working, dedicated, phenomenal kids out there, and it would be a real tragedy to see their academic and personal success affected by a small oversight or technicality,” said Smondrowski (Dist. 2) of Gaithersburg.

Change in policies

The law, which was meant to make colleges’ tuition policies more liberal, has, in turn, made Montgomery College more conservative.

Before this year, the college worked to defend its controversial tuition policy, which did not require recent or current Montgomery County Public Schools students to provide full documentation to pay in-county rate.

McDonough and others sued the college in 2011 because of the policy.

The college supported the Dream Act knowing that not all students would qualify, Homan said.

The college “believe(s) in access to higher education,” she said.

Realizing some of the 76 students who did not provide the college with full documentation before this year will not be able to provide it now, the college is “happy to work with its partners in MCPS and our friends at the state legislature,” to look for a solution, Homan said.

At Gaithersburg High School, about 15 students of the 126 students who take Montgomery College courses through a program called College Institute had not provided full documentation to Montgomery College, said Susan Byrne, who runs the program at the school.

Byrne said some of those students might be able to provide the documents, and some might not.

“I think things will really hit the students when they receive their bills,” Byrne said. “When they get a bill for $1,200, that is when we will get more response.”

Gaithersburg High School Principal Christine Handy-Collins said she is disappointed and hopes something can be worked out for the students.

“We have great kids who have goals and dreams, and they want to go to college and take advantage of the opportunity to go to higher education while they are in high school,” Handy-Collins said. “We want all of our students to have access to all of our programs.”

jbondeson@gazette.net