Education and School Choice, In The News

Education or Bust

by Mara Gay, The Daily

Three years ago, Yolanda Miranda spent the night in jail for grand larceny. Her crime? Stealing an education.

The mother of five turned herself in after she was busted for sending her kids to school in a city where she didn’t live. Miranda, 36, says the schools in Rochester, N.Y., weren’t good enough. So she sent her children to school in the nearby suburb of Greece, N.Y., instead.

“They put me in a holding cell. They accused me of grand larceny, for stealing education, and I had to laugh,” Miranda told The Daily. “How can you steal an education?”

Miranda isn’t the only parent to see the inside of a cell for such a crime. Education experts, investigators and school officials say the number of parents prosecuted for sending children to out-of-district schools has risen steadily in recent years, even as cash-strapped districts are becoming more aggressive about rooting out students who don’t belong.

The main offenders seem to be some of the most vulnerable parents in society: poor and single mothers of color who are increasingly refusing to send their children to schools in the failing districts in which they live. They are desperate to provide their kids with a good education — and willing to go to jail to do so.

“If I had to do it again 10 times over, I would,” said Miranda, whose charges were later reduced to a misdemeanor after she pleaded guilty to offering a false instrument for filing, or essentially lying on school enrollment forms. “You feel like you have to take things into your own hands. We have to do whatever we can to give our kids a chance.”

Some feel differently, arguing that the extra students place an unfair burden on taxpayers. Schools across the country have hired investigators to find those students and save districts money.

“Kids are being trained by their parents in how to commit fraud,” said Jimmie Mesis, an owner of Verify Residence, a New Jersey-based company that helps public schools identify out-of-district students. Mesis said business is booming. “Ten years ago we would probably do maybe one investigation per month. Now we’re doing two or three of them every single day.”

The issue has become particularly divisive in Connecticut, where along the coast the dignified mansions of Wall Street bankers flirt with some    of the poorest cities in the region.

Connecticut’s Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk area boasts the most unequal income distribution of any metropolitan area in the country, according to census data. In that area of the state — home to Tanya McDowell, who was sentenced to five years for grand larceny on school theft and drug-related charges last month — the top 5 percent claim a mean income of $685,000; the bottom 20 percent less than $15,000.

Those levels of inequality are worse than those in Zimbabwe, and education experts say they have helped turn Connecticut into a kind of ground zero for the fight against what activists are calling “ZIP-code education.”

Last month, Michelle Rhee, one of the most controversial education reformers in the country, joined the fray.

Her StudentsFirst organization told The Daily it is partnering with the Connecticut Parents Union, a grassroots group, to advocate for school choice and fight the criminalization of parents who send children to out-of-district schools.

“This should shatter people’s expectations of what they think the problem is in education,” Rhee told The Daily. “People want to paint poor inner-city parents of color with the same broad brush, and say that they don’t care, or they don’t understand the value of an education,” she said. “Well these parents are showing that they do know what’s at stake, and that they’re willing to take desperate measures for their children.”

Gwen Samuel, who founded the Connecticut Parents Union last year to address the state’s racial achievement gap, which is the worst in the nation, said criminalizing parents for sending their children to out-of-district schools is a poor deterrent.

“You cannot think arresting parents is going to change the fact that these kids need access to better schools,” Samuel said. “And it won’t stop mothers from doing everything they can to protect their children’s futures.”

But although countless parents are caught sending children to out-of-district schools each year, only certain cases are prosecuted.

“You just gotta look at who it’s happening to,” says Kelley Williams-Bolar, an Akron, Ohio, woman who gained national attention last year when she served 9 days in jail for falsifying records after using her father’s address to send her daughters to school in the nearby Copley-Fairlawn district. “They’re telling us to stay in our place.”

With some exceptions, parents facing prosecution tend to be poor, single mothers, and women of color. School officials deny that they are targeting any specific group. Privately, they say they are more likely to contact police if they suspect criminal activity of another kind. And some parents, like McDowell, face other criminal charges that may make their cases easier to prosecute.

For many others, though, the arrest is their first.

“They fingerprinted me, took a mugshot. It was terrible. I had never been arrested so I had no idea what they were doing,” said Marie Menard, who was arrested in October 2010 and charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy for helping enroll her grandchildren in public school in Stratford, Conn.

Menard, 61, owns a home in Stratford and says she shared informal custody of the grandchildren with her daughter. She is white, but school investigators concluded that the grandchildren, who are of mixed race, were residents of nearby Milford. “They gave others the option to just take the kids out of school, but they didn’t give us that option, they just arrested us. Why?”

In Connecticut, state education officials said the decision of which parents to investigate and prosecute is left up to each school district.

Norwalk Public Schools superintendent Susan Marks said the district tries to be sensitive to the needs of all families, especially those who may be dealing with homelessness or shared custody arrangements. She said guidelines for investigating student residency are largely informal.

“Sometimes we look into it because of some indication that a child doesn’t live in the district,” Marks said. “They may be late all the time or they’re waiting at the end of the day for someone to pick them up. It just is not very scientific actually.”

Stratford superintendent Irene Cornish did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ronald Harris, attorney for the Connecticut Department of Education, said that for most schools, identifying out-of-district students is a question of resources. In Connecticut, educating each student can run a district upward of $13,000 a year.

“They do the best they can to protect their borders and keep the cost down,“ Harris said. “Who they go after is their decision as to who they think is not a resident.”

Bill Beitler, the owner of National Investigations, an Illinois-based company that specializes in school residency, said not all districts play fair.

“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. Sometimes it’s, ‘Leave all the football players alone but check everybody else,’ ” Beitler said. “So I draft up a contract that says you can’t do that. I’ve seen everything.”

Despite the risks, many parents said the decision to send their child to an out-of-district school is an easy one.

“They said I had to pick up my son from the school or they would issue a warrant for my arrest,” said a mother of three in Hartford, Conn., who asked to remain anonymous because her other children are still attending schools in Windsor, Conn. “But in Hartford, somebody was always trying to rob my son. In Windsor, he won a scholarship. He’s on the honor roll.”

The woman, 40, said she graduated from Hartford schools functionally illiterate. “I knew what they did to me, pushed me out without being able to read and write,” she said. “I was determined that my child wasn’t going to get caught up in that system.”

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