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Student Residency

Some children are confronted with barriers to school admission that block or delay their entry into school. A number of school districts, in their legitimate effort to ensure that residents of other districts are not enrolled in their schools, have imposed documentation requirements too stringently or even illegally, thereby improperly denying admission to students who belong in their schools. Students who are homeless, who are undocumented, or who live with caregivers other than their parents or in overcrowded conditions are those most likely to have their eligibility for public school scrutinized and sometimes unfairly denied.

Largely through the advocacy efforts of ELC, New Jersey has developed a strong set of regulations that protect the rights of students seeking admission to public school. In a groundbreaking case, J.A. v. Board of Education of South Orange and Maplewood, ELC obtained a ruling from the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey establishing that students have a constitutionally protected property interest in a public education starting at the time they apply for public school admission. This decision spelled out the written notice and other protections that must be provided to public school applicants, directed the Commissioner of Education to issue regulations to clarify the obligations of school districts in the area of residency, and ruled that a school district's failure to comply with these protections could subject it to damages and attorney's fees.

In 2001, in response to the J.A. ruling and extensive comments submitted by ELC, the New Jersey Department of Education issued comprehensive regulations that include: a requirement for the immediate enrollment of students in school in all cases except denials that are not contested by the applicant; significant due process protections for students; and express prohibitions against basing admission to public schools on students' housing conditions or immigration status (N.J.A.C. 6A:22).

Additional regulations that apply to students who are homeless (N.J.A.C. 6A:17) are mandated by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The education provisions of that federal law serve to ensure equal access to public education to homeless children and youth; eliminate barriers to their enrollment, attendance or success in school; and provide them with the opportunity to meet the same challenging academic achievement standards to which all students are held (42 U.S.C. §11431).  ELC's advocacy in this area has focused on ensuring that New Jersey's regulations fully incorporate the requirements of federal law.

Current Issues

With a solid legal framework in place to protect the rights of students seeking admission to public school, the primary issue is enforcement of those rights. For example, a survey by the ACLU-NJ, released in September 2008, revealed that at least 20% of New Jersey public school districts were breaking the law by requiring proof of citizenship or legal immigration status as a condition of school enrollment. While the ACLU-NJ obtained a promise from the NJ Department of Education for more aggressive enforcement in this area, there are undoubtedly continuing violations that must be addressed. ELC expects to partner with ACLU-NJ on further enforcement efforts regarding immigrant students. ELC provides legal assistance in residency and homelessness cases, monitors for other systemic issues in these areas, and regularly expands the pool of pro bono attorneys willing to handle cases in which students are denied admission to public school on residency grounds.

ELC Publications on Student Residency

Access to Pre-K Education Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (February 2010)

Understanding Public School Residency Requirements: A Guide for Advocates (September 2005)

Education Rights of Homeless Students: A Guide for Advocates (September 2005)

For more, visit the Publications page.

Additional Resources

Regulations/Reports

Organizations

Significant Cases

J.A. v. Board of Education of South Orange and Maplewood, 318 N.J. Super. 512 (App. Div. 1999).
ELC obtained a ruling from the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey establishing that students have a constitutionally protected property interest in a public education starting at the time they apply for public school admission. This decision spelled out the written notice and other protections that must be provided to public school applicants, directed the Commissioner of Education to issue regulations to clarify the obligations of school districts in the area of residency, and ruled that a school district's failure to comply with these protections could subject it to damages and attorney's fees.

ELC News Stories on Student Residency

For a complete list of stories, visit the Student Residency section of the News Archives page.