Parents Camp Out, Risk Jail to Get Kids Into Better Schools

Published April 14, 2014

Every year, parents across the nation camp out and line up to get their kids into good schools. Some have even risked jail terms.

This year, Plano, Texas parents pitched tents in freezing temperatures to be among the first to list their kids to transfer out of their school district. Parents in Chandler, Arizona camped out for a full weekend to get their kids into a magnet school. Berkley, California, like many other districts, hires home inspectors to make sure kids flagged as potential line-hoppers actually live in the district’s attendance zone.

In 2013-14, 308,650 students were enrolled in private choice programs across the country, according to the Alliance for School Choice. That’s approximately 0.6 percent of the nation’s K-12 students.

“There is a history in U.S. education of parents trying to get the best education for their children,” said Center for Education Reform President Kara Kerwin. “My parents worked around the clock to put me and my three older sisters through Catholic education in Buffalo, New York, when our traditional public schools were not doing well.”

Kerwin mentioned Kelley Williams Bolar, an Ohio mother who in 2011 faced jail time for falsifying her address to enroll her kids in a better school district.

Pent-Up Public Demand
Approximately 1 million kids are on charter school waitlists nationwide, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“The policy environment does not meet that demand,” Kerwin said. “As it stands, only about 5 percent of all schoolchildren have access or are enrolled in schools of choice.”

Some programs labeled choice actually limit it, Kerwin said, such as “universal lotteries” for public schools. In these, districts ultimately decide where a child will attend, “and that goes against the premise that parents should be able to choose.”

One of the nation’s largest choice programs, Florida’s tax-credit scholarships for low-income children, stopped keeping tabs on how many more kids wanted the scholarships than got them, because it was disheartening. This year, some 114,000 kids have applied for approximately half that many spots.

“Almost all of the parents of scholarship children make a sacrifice to get their kids into the right school,” said Patrick Gibbons, spokesman Step Up for Students, which runs the scholarships.  “Since the scholarship is worth up to $4,880, most parents must pay a little out of pocket.… We hear stories from parents about turning down raises in order to remain eligible for the scholarship.”

Homeschoolers Threatened
When homeschooling became popular in the 1970s and ’80s, many parents were jailed or threatened with imprisonment for choosing that form of education.

“I became an attorney because my parents were jailed for homeschooling me,” Rick Brueggemann, a candidate for circuit judge, told the audience at a FreePAC Kentucky event April 5. “Mostly what I see is if parents can’t arrange to have their children in a really good parochial school, they’re homeschooling.”

Brueggeman says public education should give families freedom through school vouchers or education savings accounts.

Getting into Pre-K
“My wife went through some crazy antics to get our then-toddler into a pre-K daycare,” said Paul Croteau, a Texas dad. “We’re talking getting up at 4 a.m., waiting in line at 5 a.m., just to get a spot.… We’re not talking about getting a spot in school, but to get your name on the signup list.”

Croteau’s daughter is in eighth grade now, and he and his wife are trying to decide where she’ll attend high school.

“We actually started to social-network, finding parents who are in the schools already and then milking them for as much information as we can,” he said. “‘What did you do to get into that school? Who do I need to know to help move my application in? Who should I contact when? What activities are they looking for?'”

For some private schools, getting in is like applying to college, he noted.

“They want to see grades. They want to see activities. They want to see your fundraising efforts in the past. They want to see not only what the student has done, but also what have you as the parent done for your school…. It’s very, very difficult these days,” he said.

Image by Stew Dean.