Some vast majority of school systems assign students to schools by strict geographic (and thus economic) boundaries known as local school districts and neighborhood attendance zones. The exceptions — magnet and themed schools, most charter schools, and districts with universal choice — are relatively few and far between.
That’s why parents “stealing” a better education for their children when moving into a better school district or neighborhood attendance zone isn’t possible (for financial reasons) or necessary (when easy loopholes are available) is to me one of the most fascinating (and under-covered) topics in education.
The latest story on this phenomenon comes from Kyle Spencer in the Hechinger Report (Can you steal an education?). Spencer is a regular contributor to the Report but also writes for other outlets including the New York Times. She also co-produced a 2014 Frontline documentary about school segreation. Read all about her here.
This latest story updates us on Hamlet Garcia, a Pennsylvania parent who first came to my attention in an Al Jazeera America segment (Getting Schooled) last year when he and his wife were charged with theft of services by a school district claiming that they were faking an address in leafy Lower Moreland rather than northwest Philadelphia in order to get a better education for their daughter Fiorella. (See video embedded above).
According to Spencer’s story:
The Garcia case is one of a handful in recent years in which families living in districts with failing schools have been accused of “stealing an education.” Some have been heavily fined for lying about where they live on official district documents. Others have been criminally charged and, in some cases, jailed.
These may be extreme examples, but they are worrying civil rights activists, parent advocacy groups and some local politicians, who say strict enforcement strategies like these unfairly impact poor families of color, who cannot easily pay their way out of trouble by refunding the value of their children’s allegedly stolen schooling.
Previous well-publicized cases including Ohio teacher’s aide Kelley Williams-Bolar or homeless Bridgeport parent Tanya McDowell or the Orinda childcare provider. But in the Philadelphia case, the Cuban immigrant and his white Russian-American wife don’t fit the conventional stereotype of a family who might be forced to take such an extreme measure.
Indeed, parents who can’t afford the rent or purchase price in desirable districts or neighborhoods aren’t all poor and uneducated. They might not resort to the same methods as lower-income parents, or get caught as easily or obviously, but they’re doing much the same thing. In Brooklyn’s Park Slope, parents with the means to do so could at one time move into the neighborhood for a year to win a spot at local elementary school PS 321 then move out without losing their kid’s spot in the school.
In some cases involving educated parents, the “stealing” sometimes doesn’t involve geographical fakery but rather getting around a random lottery. A 2011 LA Weekly story told us about charter school parents being rotated through board positions so they wouldn’t have to rely on getting in randomly through a lottery. Not too long ago in Chicago, well-placed parents could get themselves “clouted” into desirable schools through a loophole called “principal’s preference.” Current Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has been accused of having used this approach.
Spencer’s story rounds up some of the latest examples and how districts are responding. She also notes that some civil rights groups and choice advocates have locked onto the issue as a way of generating attention to the massive inequalities of the current district- and neighborhood-based system.
Looking ahead, the issue of parents stealing an education due in part to housing-based school assignment is an interesting one for progressives and moderate Democrats — all the more so since liberal darling Elizabeth Warren has said challenging things about neighborhood-based school assignment.
An April 2014 New Yorker profile by Jill Lepore (Reading Elizabeth Warren) quotes her as saying:
Schools in middle-class neighborhoods may be labeled ‘public,’ but parents have paid for tuition by purchasing a $175,000 home within a carefully selected school district.
Increased attention on economic inequality and limited social mobility in the media and on the campaign trail could also generate more attention to this story.