Them’s That Got Shall Have: Criminalizing Parents Who Steal Free Education

Every parent wants what is best for his or her children but only some parents are going to jail for trying to provide their kids with the best education money can’t buy.

As schools across the country are gearing up for the start of another school year, cash-strapped school districts are responding with threats to fine and jail parents who enroll kids who do not officially live in the district’s boundaries.

Last year a mother in Ohio became the first of several high profile cases of parents being jailed for defrauding the school system when she used her father’s address to enroll her child in a better school.

Last month, parents in Philadelphia were tried for theft of services in Philadelphia, also for sending their child to a school in a wealthier, neighboring district.

Recently, Greenwich, CT residents admit to reporting the license plate numbers of parents suspected of not belonging in the drop-off lane. The parents claim they are not on a “witch hunt” but if there’s prey, something or someone is definitely being hunted.

Take a look at the parents who are being arrested:

No comment.

It all begs the question: how does one steal something that is free?

Of course, the answer is that public school isn’t free. When Mississippi became the last state in the nation to make schooling compulsory in 1917, the U.S. committed itself to providing tuition-free education through primary and, later, high school. But, to pay for the massive organizational structures that make public school happen – buildings, teachers, construction, and maintenance – school districts rely upon property taxes. Through the tax structure we all pay into the public education system. In exchange, parents are legally compelled to enroll their children in school.

That has worked to various degrees of success for different groups at different points in history. Chinese and Mexican immigrants waged legal battles to gain access to public education. Later, the case that would become Brown versus Board of Education used the law to give black students equal access to the nation’s school systems. Today, DREAMers fight for personhood, dignity, and citizenship in an appeal to both the law and the education system. Schooling and the law are not strangers to one another.

But until now, rarely has the law been used to police administrative issues like out-of-district student enrollment.  Indeed, competitive high school sports teams have historically been the biggest beneficiaries of address slights-of-hand. Parents of all socio-economic statuses have skirted the system to put their student athletes in the best leagues. Suddenly, (some) parents are going to jail for doing what’s always been done. In the Ohio case of Kelly Williams-Bolar the school district used tax-supported funds to hire a private investigator to dig into the life of a private citizen. A company in New Jersey, “Verify Residence”, specializes in helping public schools identify out-of-district students. That we find ourselves in a moment when public school districts spend money to ostensibly save money is a story of just how our schools perpetuate systemic, structural inequality.

To charge a parent with “stealing” public education is to admit that not all schools are created equal. Do we really believe that school districts would hire private investigators if the parent were enrolling her student in a school poorer than the one in her home district? In fact, much of our education social policy in this country is predicated on incentivizing wealthy parents to effectively do just that: bring more class diversity into schools. The logic goes that wealthier, high status students increase the performance of their poorer, lower status peers by modeling successful learning behaviors. While the research there is strong but challenged by some, the fact remains that public policy is shaped by this idea.

At the heart of this issue is how we fund our public schools. As education advocate Diane Ravitch has said, a child’s educational outcomes can be predicted based on her zip code. With few exceptions, the generational nature of wealth transfer means where we live is a direct reflection of how we were born. Wealthier neighborhoods generate more property taxes, which, in turn, can provide greater resources for their public schools. Few of those wealthy parents would advocate for legally barring poor, brown children from attending their schools. But, hardening the border between districts does exactly that: it legally sanctions poor, brown kids from attending those schools. That it also makes inequality a bureaucratic act that distances well-meaning wealthy parents from the dirty act of exclusion is just a bonus.

These parents are not bad people but they do benefit greatly from a very bad system. The structure of school funding creates an unavoidable tension between how these parents love their own kids – by giving them the best they can afford – and the limits of how other, less wealthy parents, are able to love their kids because of what they cannot afford.

It’s a quandary. How does one do right by others while honoring their biological and moral responsibility to do best by their own children? Just as bureaucracies create rules, regulations, and punishments that reinforce inequality, bureaucracies can be used to disrupt inequality. That is what government, at its best, should do.

The 2009 economic recession, driven by mortgage policies that disproportionately affected minorities reinforced what has long been true: our addresses are steeped in disparities. Education is still the best vehicle, beyond being born wealthy, for a chance at upward mobility in the U.S. Tying school funding to property values is a tacit admission by this nation that unequal schools is the education system we want and deserve.

Policing student enrollment and criminalizing parents for administrative revolts against institutional inequality is the inevitable end of an unequal system and the perception of limited resources. Our current system of funding education may work for the wealthy few but unlike school district borders, the border between the ills borne of poverty and social stagnation is porous. Poverty has a way of crashing through the walls we would build to contain it.

Sending public investigators to follow a single mother home from work or interrogating a child about where he goes after school is not a solution to the real problem. Criminalizing individuals for a criminal inequality in the structure of public education is inefficient, unproductive, and immoral.

5 thoughts on “Them’s That Got Shall Have: Criminalizing Parents Who Steal Free Education

  1. Spending public money to save public money is not controversial. Every tax authority has an enforcement and fraud investigation function. It costs money but it keeps the system ticking over.

    It is interesting that you see taxpayers in one district having a duty to fund the education of people outside that district to the same degree they educate themselves. Does that duty stop at the border of the state, or the nation, or does it cover the whole world?

    If I understand correctly (I am a foreigner) the US Constitution provides for Ms Williams-Bolar to obtain legislation at the state level to redistribute money to improve the schools in Akron district. It is not necessary to lie to the local authorities. Part of democracy is respecting others’ right to vote and enact laws, rather than circumventing them by lying.

    1. My radical proposal for equitable funding of all school districts would stop at the borders of the current state. That would mean the nation…unless South Asia now pays U.S. taxes?

      Also, behavior is neutral. Meaning is assigned through social processes. I challenge the idea of this behavior being characterized as criminal for some and acceptable for others.

      Finally, if we are not going to fund schools equitably then we should revisit them being compulsory.

      1. I do like the idea of equitable education funding stopping at the nation’s borders. In Australia, for example, we have more-or-less uniform quality of public schooling across districts from east to west.

        We do, however, have to make sure we exclude South Asia, Mexico, etc from our “nation”. It’s too many children and not enough income per capita, so including them in our education system would dilute the quality of schooling for kids within the current borders of Australia.

        We have an immigration system that stops foreign children coming in and learning at our schools. So we take Copley Fairlawn district’s approach, and blow it up to a national scale, with immigration officials checking up on people to stop them taking education that is free for us but theft for them.

        I must apologise for my ignorance of public school funding in the US. Is it funded from federal taxes or district taxes? If local, then I can empathise with taxpayers wanting to look after their own community’s children before caring for their neighbouring communities’. But if it is federal funding, I don’t see how they can justify saying “This is ‘our’ school and ‘you’ are not welcome.” Both “us” and “them” in that sentence are US citizens and have equal right to a US-funded school.

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In honor of the VEEP Debate last night I’m reblogging my minor brush with presidential policy talk. I’m experiencing the same rush of most liberals after last night’s enjoyable performance. But it’s not a bad thing to remember that on education issues democrats and republicans are running on pretty much the same platform.