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

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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 Hamlet Garcia and Olesia Garcia of Philadelphia were arrested for "theft of services" in Philadelphia, also for sending their child to a school in a wealthier, neighboring district.

At the start of this new school year the Atlanta Public School system issued notices to parents that investigations would be conducted to confirm if students were enrolled in the correct school. A grace period was being offered. If parents turned themselves in before the investigation began they would not receive "punishment." That included fines, restitution and possible jail time.

Recently The New York Times reported that Greenwich, Conn. residents were recording 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. It should not surprise anyone that the parents in many of these cases are black, Hispanic, and/or working class.

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 vs. 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 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. Strangely there are few stories of soccer moms being arrested for getting Junior a spot on the district's best football team. Suddenly, (some) parents are going to jail for doing what's always been done. In the Ohio case of Kelley 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 on criminal investigations 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: work for the good of the collective when individuals cannot or will not.

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.