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Just over a year ago, Hamlet Garcia lumbered 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.
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.”
He faced a potential maximum sentence of seven years.
Garcia says in 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. During that time, Fiorella 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.
In August 2012, Garcia and his wife were charged with theft of services and conspiracy to commit theft of services. They waited a year-and-a-half for their case to go to trial.
The Garcia 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.
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 in which her father lived. That same year, Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was arrested for sending her five-year-old son to a Norwalk school. And in 2009, Yolanda Hill, a Rochester, New York mother, was charged with two felonies after enrolling her children in a nearby suburban district.
These may be extreme examples, but they are worrying civil rights activists, parent advocacy groups and some local politicians, who say strict enforcement strategies like these 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.
This winter, the school district in Orinda, a wealthy enclave near San Francisco, made national headlines when officials hired an investigator to spy on the seven-year-old daughter of a local childcare 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 2013, administrators at Northwestern High School in Maryland’s Prince George’s County capped off a graduation information session by handing seniors letters that required them to show proof of residency before graduating. And that same year, an appellate court upheld a decision to fire a New York City special education teacher for using a fake address to enroll her son in a school in the building where she worked.
In Beverly Hills, California 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.
The Boston public schools maintain an anonymous tip line for parents to rat on 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.
These draconian measures are helping to popularize a new term: “education theft.” And they are shedding light on a view increasingly taking hold in top-performing school districts: Parents willing to do anything to get their children into decent schools aren’t devoted caretakers, but criminals who need to be punished.
There have been no definitive reports on the number of school districts cracking down on parents accused of “enrollment fraud.” But civil rights groups and education activists say anecdotal evidence suggests these practices may be on the rise.
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 ways that can seem overly aggressive and sometimes predatory.
“I’m hearing about it more and more every year,” said Gloria Romero, a former state senator and the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment.
“It’s a ‘gotcha’ thing,” said Gwen Samuel, the founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, who has helped to support a handful of families who 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, who has become an education activist since her own incident, says she receives up to a dozen calls a year from families around the country who have been videotaped, watched, and threatened with hefty fines for enrolling their children in schools in districts in which they don’t live.
“They’ve gotten caught,” Williams-Bolar said. “And they want to know what to do.”
Williams-Bolar says often families are told if they take their child out of the out-of-district school right away, they can avoid fines. 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.
Giving parents more power to pick their children’s schools has been on the national agenda for nearly two decades. The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act gave parents the right to switch their children to another district school if theirs had been deemed “in need of improvement.”
But parent advocates say this effort hasn’t comprehensively addressed the larger issue, which is that many of the nation’s worst schools are in poor districts with few high-performing options.
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.”
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.
“There is the law and then there is the use of the law,” she said. “A lot of parents think they are trapped in these zones.”
Parent advocates point out that in most of the recent high-profile cases, the parents have been black or Hispanic and the districts that went after them were mostly white. Williams-Bolar in Ohio is black. Garcia and the Orinda mother who was suspected of fraud are both Hispanic.
“The question is: are they doing the same checks with white students that they are doing with minority students? ” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, Jr., the communications director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Parent groups in Connecticut, Ohio and California have led national campaigns, shedding light on the practices and lobbying for bills that would remove jail time as a penalty for parents who are caught lying about their addresses so they can send their children to better schools.
In 2013, Samuel, of the Connecticut Parents Union, helped push through a state law that prohibits jail time for such parents. In Ohio, Williams-Bolar, who has become a cult figure of sorts, has taken to the road to push for a similar law there. And Hamlet Garcia has appeared on national television, denouncing what happened to him. He and others are pushing for a law in Pennsylvania.
They all contend 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.
In Garcia’s case, Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County district attorney, told reporters that the Garcias “essentially stole from every hard-working taxpayer who resides within the Lower Moreland School District.”
Many states would seem to agree. 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., parents can be jailed for up to 90 days for providing false documentations, and in Oklahoma, perpetrators can be jailed for up to a year .
But parent advocates say this is a civil rights issue and the real crime is the disparity between wealthy districts and poor ones.
“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,” said Ryan Smith, the executive director of The Education Trust—West, a foundation that focuses on improving schools in poor communities.
For parent advocates, the crackdowns are all the more troubling in an age of intense data collection, with school districts around the country routinely publishing their test score results and state report card grades — measures that became widespread as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated transparency.
Surveys of this data indicate that students of color in low-income districts are less likely to be reading and doing math at grade level, and are eventually less likely to graduate than their wealthier white peers.
“It’s not like these school districts can say: ‘We don’t know these other schools are bad,’” said Samuel. “They know.”
Garcia did not want his daughter to attend William H. Loesche Elementary School in northwest Philadelphia, the school she would have attended if he and his wife had not enrolled her in the Pine Road Elementary School, in the Lower Moreland School District. Although William H. Loesche performs better on state tests than many Philadelphia schools, with 70.5 percent of third graders proficient in math last year, it still trails Pine Road, one of the top elementary schools in the state with third grade math proficiency scores of 95 percent.
To avoid the school, Garcia says he and his wife are dipping into their savings and scrambling to get funds to send Fiorella to a private school in nearby Montgomery County.
Last year, shortly after jury selection, the couple entered into a plea bargain, agreeing to pay the district close to $11,000 in back tuition. In exchange, prosecutors dropped the charges against Olesia Garcia and reduced those against Garcia, who pled guilty to a summary offense, a very minor criminal offense punishable only by a fine. Garcia says the case cost him an estimated $70,000 in legal fees, some of which were paid by donations from supporters.
“My heart told me to go to trial,” he said. “But if I had lost, I would have lost everything.”