Just over a year ago, Hamlet Garcia climbed up the steps of a stately courthouse in Norristown, Pa., wondering how much longer he would be free.
The Philadelphia resident and his wife, Olesia, an insurance agent, were about to go on trial for theft of services, an offense usually reserved for cable service pilferers and restaurant bill dodgers. Their alleged crime: stealing an education for their 8-year-old daughter, Fiorella.
He was staring at possibly seven years behind bars.
Garcia, who came to the United States from Cuba when he was 18, remembers thinking one thing as he headed into the courthouse: “This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in America.”
Their 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.
Such draconian measures are helping to popularize a new term: “education theft.” There have been no definitive reports on the number of school districts cracking down on enrollment fraud, but civil rights groups and education activists say anecdotal evidence suggests these practices may be on the rise.
“I’m hearing about it more and more every year,” said Gloria Romero, a former California state senator and founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment.
The examples are many. And while perhaps extreme, they are worrying civil rights activists, parent advocacy groups and some local politicians who say strict enforcement strategies 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.
Jonah Edelman, the CEO of Stand for Children, a national education advocacy group, says that his group does not condone parents breaking the law.
“But the real crime, which needs to be prosecuted, is the glaring inequity in the quality of schools in rich areas versus poor ones,” he said.
In the case of the Garcias, the father says that during the 2011-2012 school year, his wife and daughter spent nine months during a marital separation living with his wife’s father in Lower Moreland, a quaint, suburban township of rolling hills and stone colonials. His daughter attended the district’s much-sought-after elementary school, where she read picture books, learned the alphabet and made friends.
The local district attorney’s office contends Garcia and his wife were never truly separated and that they always lived in neighboring northwest Philadelphia, where many of the schools are struggling, and lied to gain entry into the Lower Moreland schools.
They “essentially stole from every hard-working taxpayer who resides within the Lower Moreland School District,” Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman told reporters.
The couple entered into a plea bargain last year, agreeing to pay nearly $11,000 in back tuition in exchange for no charges against Olesia Garcia and a reduced charge and fine for her husband. Legal fees ran about $70,000. They are hoping to send their daughter to a private school.
In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar, a special education aide in Akron, Ohio, was convicted of records tampering and spent nine days in jail for sending her two daughters to a school in the high-performing school district where her father lived.
That same year, Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother in Bridgeport, Conn., was arrested for sending her 5-year-old son to a Norwalk school. And in 2009, Yolanda Hill, a Rochester, N.Y., mother, was charged with two felonies after enrolling her children in a nearby suburban district.
This winter, the school district in Orinda, Calif., a wealthy enclave near San Francisco, made national headlines when officials hired an investigator to spy on the 7-year-old daughter of a local child care provider suspected of living in another town. It was later discovered the girl lived near the school in the home of her mother’s employers. She was allowed to stay in the district school, after her mother agreed to make the couple she worked for official caregivers.
In Beverly Hills, Calif., where officials say they deal with at least one confirmed enrollment fraud case a month, the school board last summer voted to enact a measure to impose fines of $150 a day or up to $14,000 a year on families who seek entry with forged leases or utility bills.
Boston public schools maintain an anonymous tip line for parents to expose students they suspect are lying about where they live. And the Bayonne school district, in northern New Jersey, promises parents a $200 bounty when they provide credible information that leads to a student being kicked out.
Jimmie Mesis, the founder of VerifyResidence.com, a New Jersey-based private investigating firm that launched locally in 2000, says he has expanded across the country and now works with more than 200 districts on enrollment issues and residency fraud.
Parent rights organizations that seek to protect parents from discriminatory actions say they are increasingly finding themselves advocating for parents who have been targeted and – in some cases – harassed by school districts that are cracking down.
In Michigan, parents convicted of providing false documents to satisfy student residency requirements can be jailed for up to 20 days. In Washington, D.C., they can get up to 90 days for providing false documentations, and in Oklahoma, the sentence can be up to a year.
“It’s a ‘gotcha’ thing,” said Gwen Samuel, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, which has helped to support a handful of families that have been criminally charged for enrollment fraud and other related offenses. “What’s troubling now is the length that districts are willing to go. You see residency officers more than ever, and this practice of treating families like they’ve robbed a bank. It has become the norm to treat them like criminals.”
Williams-Bolar, the Akron special education aide convicted of records tampering, says often families can avoid fines if they take their child out of the out-of-district school right away. She advises them to do that and then to seek out charter schools, homeschooling options or magnet schools. But sometimes none of those are possible, and families end up back in their low-performing neighborhood schools.
A 2010 California law authored by Romero when she was a state senator permits parents of students attending one of a thousand California schools identified as poor-performing to transfer their children into higher quality schools anywhere in the state, if there is space.
California’s Department of Education does not keep track of how many families make use of the law, but Romero says many parents aren’t aware of it. “A lot of parents think they are trapped in these zones,” she said.
Around the country, parent groups are fighting back: by publicizing the cases, lobbying against jail time and arguing that school residency laws are unconstitutional because they discriminate against parents in struggling school districts.
School and county officials contend that they are protecting taxpayers from thieves.
But Ryan Smith, the executive director of The Education Trust-West, a foundation that focuses on improving schools in poor communities, said, “The real issue is how do we provide quality schools for all children so parents don’t have to make decisions that ultimately break the law.”