On Feb. 22, Tanya McDowell of Bridgeport, Conn., was sentenced to several years in jail for larceny. What did she steal? A public education for her 6-year-old son in the nearby Norwalk school district. (The McDowells live outside the Norwalk district's boundaries.) Last September, Akron, Ohio, mother Kelley Williams-Bolar narrowly missed serving time behind bars for two felony convictions stemming from enrolling her two daughters in a better public school. And in Rochester, N.Y., Yolanda Miranda was recently charged with grand larceny for district-hopping her five children. When her charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, she gave up custody of her kids to her mother, who lives in a better school district. Indeed, across the country, school districts are cracking down on parents trying to "steal education" for their kids. Here's what you should know:
How common is district-hopping?
Anecdotally, it is quite common, and schools are cracking down hard. Jimmie Mesis of Verify Residence, a New Jersey outfit that helps sniff out district-hoppers, says business is booming. "Ten years ago we would probably do maybe one investigation per month," he tells The Daily. "Now we're doing two or three of them every single day."
Is district-hopping really theft?
It depends who you ask. The Connecticut Department of Education says that districts spend upward of $13,000 a year to educate each student, so district-hopping is unfair to local taxpayers. Districts "do the best they can to protect their borders and keep the cost down," state education attorney Ronald Harris tells The Daily. But Connecticut mom McDowell isn't convinced. "You shouldn't be arrested for stealing a free education," she tells The Connecticut Post. "It's just wrong."
How do schools pick which parents to prosecute?
Each district decides for itself, says Harris. Maybe, says Mara Gay at The Daily. But with few exceptions, the targets are "poor, single mothers, and women of color." Yes, not all districts play fair, says Bill Beitler at National Investigations, an Illinois firm that specializes in school residency busting. "Some might flag the special-education students, or pull one over on me and try to flag the African-American families or the Hispanic families," he tells The Daily. "Sometimes it's, 'Leave all the football players alone but check everybody else.' ... I've seen everything."
Is this really fair?
No, it's absurd to imprison a mom who's only trying to give her kid a decent education and a shot out of poverty, says Ron Jackson in the Kankakee, Ill., Daily Journal. "I'm not advocating leniency for theft. Wait, in this case, yes, I am. If ever there was a case where community service fit the crime, this would be it." Fair or not, the crackdown is futile, says Yolanda Miranda. "If I had to do it again 10 times over, I would.... You have to take things into your own hands. We have to do whatever we can to give our kids a chance."