Old law gets parents arrested
By Gloria Romero
(From The Orange County Register, February 11th, 2013)
There is a "crime" wave sweeping America.
Across the nation, parents are being arrested for "theft of educational services."
The latest arrest occurred in Pennsylvania where Mr. and Mrs. Hamlet Garcia were arrested, handcuffed, made to perform the "perp walk," charged and, if convicted, face up to seven years in prison for enrolling their 5-year-old daughter in a school outside their Zip Code.
The Garcias are naturalized citizens. They own a local business. They were separated, during which time Mrs. Garcia moved out and went to live with her father in neighboring Montgomery County, enrolling their child in the local school. Eventually, the couple reconciled. Rather than further disrupting the child's life, they left her in the school to complete the academic year.
This is a school that is under-enrolled. It has less than 10 minority students. The district dispatched a private investigator to follow the parents. Based on this, the Garcia's were arrested. Their offer to make financial restitution to the district was declined. The district attorney vowed to "make an example of them." Their first court appearance occurred this week.
The Garcias are not alone. Mr. and Mrs. Callahan were a divorced couple who share joint legal custody of their two children in Illinois. They enrolled their children in the father's academically superior school district. In 2012, they were threatened with arrest.
And then there's Kelley Williams-Bolar, a single mother in Ohio who can only be described as the Rosa Parks of the parent empowerment movement. She was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to jail for consciously fleeing a poor-performing district and daring to enroll her child in a more successful school. It was only after hundreds of thousands of people signed an online petition calling for clemency for her, that the Ohio governor intervened after nine days of incarceration and released her (though she was forced to be on parole). Usually, gubernatorial pardons are considered for those convicted of crimes such as murder - not mothers fighting for education opportunities for their children.
The list goes on, including a Connecticut mother who "had the audacity" to be homeless in an affluent school district. She was arrested when she enrolled her children in school.
Gwen Samuel, the founder of the National Parents Union and an education reform activist in Connecticut, has effectively begun to mobilize parents nationally to directly challenge "education by Zip Code" laws. Just this week, she and a bevy of education and civil rights organizations - including California Democrats for Education Reform - submitted a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan calling for an investigation into the Garcia case.
They note that the secretary himself has proclaimed on his own website that a quality education should not be hampered by Zip Code. They are backing a legal challenge to such educational practices - a practice enacted in 1833 when teacher Quaker Prudence Crandall admitted a 17-year-old African-American female student in her Canterbury school, resulting in what is widely regarded as the first integrated classroom in the nation. The Connecticut legislature quickly passed "The Black Law," prohibiting this non-residency enrollment.
Fundamental issues of constitutionality, equality and opportunity are at the root of the legal questions raised by the arrest of these parents. It is long overdue for us to reexamine - and boldly reject - adherence to a law that was enacted two centuries ago to prevent the children of former slaves from crossing artificial geographic boundaries in search of accessing the American Dream.