Despite Fines and Prison Time, Parents Keep Jumping School Boundaries for a Quality Education

Moms and dads may be landing in hot water, but they say they’re just trying to give their kids the chance they deserve.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Dec 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It sounds like a scenario from the antebellum South, or maybe from the Dark Ages in Europe: A hardworking live-in nanny is in serious trouble for giving her daughter a better education than the law entitled her to get, even if that meant stealing it.

Yet that’s what happened in late November in an affluent San Francisco suburb. Education authorities in Orinda, Calif., ejected Vivian, a seven-year-old second grader from class. Vivian’s mother, a nanny, had enrolled her daughter in the wealthy school district in the community in which she worked and lived part-time rather than in the hardscrabble one her legal residence mandated. When the case made national headlines and the nanny’s employer vouched for her, the school let the child stay.

Vivian and her mom were lucky, though. Across the country, a spate of so-called “boundary hopping” cases, involving parents who fraudulently enroll their children in a wealthier or higher-performing school district, have exposed a problem that experts say is widespread but largely hidden from public view.

In an era of tight budgets, rising costs, and easily accessible digital records, school districts are cracking down on boundary hoppers, and they’re sometimes hiring private investigators to do it. Nevertheless, at a time of high-stakes standardized tests and more competition for a shrinking number of seats at top colleges, parents are still willing to risk fines, jail, and even prison time to give their kids the best education possible.

For example, a Philadelphia father took a plea deal in January after authorities charged him with using his dad’s suburban address to enroll his daughter in a higher-performing, wealthier elementary school across the city line. Hamlet Garcia and his wife, Olesia, had been facing prison time for fraud; they now have to pay more than $10,000 to cover the cost of their child’s education.

After her arrest in a drug deal in Norwalk, Conn., two years ago, Tanya McDowell was hit with a tougher, 12-year sentence when authorities found out she’d illegally sent her son to a tony suburban elementary school instead of the gritty, underperforming one near her home. In 2011, Charles Lauron, a single father from Louisville, Ky., faced 10 years behind bars and a $26,000 fine for fraudulently enrolling his son in a better school outside of town—one of about 50 boundary-hopping cases the district uncovered that year. The list of cases stretches from California to New Jersey.

But the phenomenon isn’t new. When my family moved from California to Baltimore in the mid-1970s, my parents used my aunt’s address to enroll my three sisters and me in a better middle school than the one we were supposed to attend. My folks didn’t get caught, and we got access to advanced-placement classes that helped form the foundation of our education.

Michael Q. McShane, an education policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it’s hard to know how much boundary hopping goes on nationwide. It’s easy to do—many districts require only a utility bill as proof of residence—few districts report it, and “by its nature, people are trying not to get caught doing it,” McShane said.

The problem, he said, is rooted in how schools are organized, in a patchwork national system that often puts a struggling, resource-poor district right next to one with better teachers, newer buildings, and more money. McShane, a former inner-city teacher, said that for some children their address determines their access to education, “good, bad, or indifferent.”

On the flip side, affluent communities have created “essentially private public schools. You have to have enough money to live in the district,” McShane said. Although an education is technically free for any American citizen, he added, home prices, property taxes, and neighborhood school fees “are essentially your tuition” for a better school.

For anxious parents caught in the middle—assigned to a bad district but so close to a good one—the leap from obeying the law to committing fraud is as easy as putting someone else’s address on a school registration form, McShane said. But “I get the perspective of the principal,” who has to foot the bill for students that aren’t his, McShane added. That tab that can run as high as $600 to $800 a day.

The answer, McShane said, is a combination of school choice for parents and a commitment to create better schools in poor communities. Otherwise, he said, the situation will continue, with the haves doing whatever it takes to protect themselves from the have-nots.

“It’s difficult to get beyond that underlying injustice that where you’re born can have such a huge impact on the quality of your education,” he said.